Black Panthers: Photographs by Ruth-Marion Baruch and Pirkle Jones

Article excerpt

Black Panthers: Photographs by Ruth-Marion Baruch and Pirkle Jones. May 15-July 23, 2004 18th Street Arts Center, Santa Monica, California

Introduction by Kathleen Cleaver, Greybull Press, 2002

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For three months in 1968, Ruth-Marion Baruch and Pirkle Jones photographed the Black Panthers in their Oakland neighborhood. From portraits, to rallies, to organizing sessions, the photographers gained unprecedented access to the most celebrated and feared Black Power group in America during one of our most tumultuous and violent times. Race riots and armed revolt were very real occurrences and the tension between white, mainstream America and humiliated black America was at a boiling point. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated a few months earlier and Malcolm X in 1965, and the Panthers stepped in to fill the political void and empower Afro-Americans like never before.

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Into this highly charged environment stepped two white liberals who wanted to balance the violent media image of the group with a more nuanced and humane picture. That such a pair could even gain access, let alone actually do this, is a testament to how long ago 1968 was. It is hard to imagine a radical group today allowing a total outsider into the inner sanctum. For us, what is even more remarkable are the photographs they made. Straightforward, elegant and with an economy of means, Baruch and Jones allowed the project to unfold over those few months. Because of their photographs, they earned the respect and admiration of Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver, who in turn facilitated their rapport with the other members.

The exhibition at 18th Street Arts Center in Santa Monica is a powerful reminder of that time and is as historic as it is affectionate. Historical authority is created through the transparency of their style, the persuasiveness of the individual photographs and from the physical distance that the photographers usually kept between themselves and their subjects. It is in these areas that the photographers demonstrate their greatness as both journalists and artists.

The afore-mentioned affection is evident through the thinly disguised romanticism in the pictures. I'm sure there must have been some physically unattractive Panthers, but none are pictured. Each participant is handsome or beautiful and each Afro is coifed to perfection and each member's smooth, brown skin is fitted in a sleek black turtle-neck, leather gloves and Kinthe cloth. Each man is muscular and intellectual, often shown holding a book and each child is portrayed as a would-be angel.

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A Pirkle Jones image from a 'Free Huey Newton Rally' shows five, slender, powerful young women, each with a perfect Afro, shouting defiantly while raising their fists in the familiar Black Power salute. …