Friday, February 3, 2012

The Loving Story, Photographs by Grey Villet @ICP

JTF (just the facts): A total of 20 black and white photographs, framed in black and matted, and hung against light blue walls in a single room gallery space on the lower level of the museum. All of the works are vintage gelatin silver prints from 1965. No dimension or edition information was provided for any of the works on view. A glass case in the center of the room contains a copy of the LIFE magazine article The Crime of Being Married, which includes several of the photographs and ran in 1966. A single video screen runs a small tape loop giving news background on the story. The curator of this exhibit was Erin Barnett. Since photography is unfortunately not allowed in the ICP galleries, the images for this show come via the ICP website. (Photographs by Grey Villet, top to bottom, at right.)

Comments/Context: Grey Villet's photographs of Richard and Mildred Loving are a sensitive and surprisingly powerful example of the classic photo essay. Using a handful of interconnected photographs to tell the human back story of their unassuming but controversial interracial marriage, Villet documents the quietly personal aspects of the miscegenation laws of 1960s Virginia and of the Loving's history making Supreme Court battle. This isn't a story about shouting and marching, but about unlikely heroes going about their lives, defying the authorities and the prevailing attitudes of the day in the name of love and family.

Villet's photographs center on the intimacy and tenderness expressed between the couple, and while we have seen these kinds of softly romantic images before, these pictures have an undercurrent of intensity; the Loving's role in the civil rights struggle makes their ordinariness seem extraordinary. Hands touch, arms drape casually over shoulders, Richard lies in Mildred's lap on the couch, and knowing looks and kisses are exchanged. Their lives seem utterly normal and natural: Mildred wears curlers, sweeps the living room, and bandages a child's arm, the kids play with dandelions and joyfully climb trees in the backyard, the couple socializes with friends at the local diner or the drag racing track. The only clues to their larger struggle are their often tired faces (brave and dedicated in a supremely understated way), the disapproving glances of Richard's mother, and the smug portrait of the judge in his library.

This is a small exhibit, but I think it provides clear proof of the lasting value of the photo essay as a journalistic form. Photographs are used to illustrate a story ripped from the headlines, and in doing so, give it a much richer and more nuanced reading than could ever have been accomplished with text alone. No amount of saying so can replace the sight of this couple acting like all couples do. Given the context of the times, their behavior was inconceivable to many, and yet, when really observed, it was seen to be genuinely loving. It's a story that needed to be told with photographs, and Villet did an admirable job of avoiding a harsher and more obvious political angle and instead let the everyday actions of the people speak for themselves.
Collector's POV: Since this is a museum show, there are, of course, no posted prices. Villet's photographs have little or no consistent secondary market history, so gallery retail is likely the only option for interested collectors at this point. Many of Villet's prints are available from the Monroe Gallery in Santa Fe (here).
Rating: * (one star) GOOD (rating system described here)

Transit Hub:
  • Estate site (here)
  • The Loving Story film site (here)
  • Features/Reviews: NY Times (here), Lens (here), La Lettre de la Photographie (here)
The Loving Story, Photographs by Grey Villet
Through May 6th

1133 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10036

No comments: