A new photography exhibition explores America in crisis

The show brings together the work of 40 American photographers from the 1960s to today to document the pivotal social changes that have taken place in the US – from Richard Nixon’s election right up to the Capitol riots last year

Originally conceived in 1969, America in Crisis was a group initiative that used the power of imagemaking to assess the state of the nation. Taking the form of an exhibition and publication, the project was led by Magnum Photos’ then New York bureau chief, Lee Jones, and American photographer Charles Harbutt.

“Several of us felt that the 1968 elections would be somehow special; that deeper questions for America were riding than just electing a president,” Harbutt said at the time. “I felt that the basic issue was that the traditional American self-image as learned through public schools, Hollywood movies, ads and Fourth of July speeches – the American Dream itself – was being challenged….”

Top: #FXCK July 4th: Rally about police brutality toward women and LGBTQ+, Atlanta, Georgia, 2020 © Sheila Pree Bright; Above: The Selma March, Alabama, USA, 1965 © Bruce Davidson/Magnum Photos
Massive Support for Richard Nixon at the Republican Convention. Miami, Florida, USA, 1968 © Elliott Erwitt/Magnum Photos

America in Crisis turned a critical eye on the US at a time of great social, political and cultural upheaval, examining key events in 1968 leading up to Richard Nixon’s inauguration. And despite the rise of fake news in recent years, the role of photography as a means to bear witness arguably feels just as relevant today. It is with this in mind that London’s Saatchi Gallery opens its new exhibition of the same name.

Curated by photography consultant Sophie Wright, Gregory Harris from Atlanta’s High Museum of Art, and LA-based photographer and academic Tara Pixley, the show brings together original historical photographs from 1969 and recent works made during another tumultuous time in America’s history.

Smithville, Tennessee, 2015 © Stacy Kranitz
The Capitol, Washington, USA, January 6th, 2020 © Balazs Gardi

By revisiting and updating the original exhibition now, the curators hope to create a unique dialogue between leading photographers from 1968, such as Bruce Davidson, Elliott Erwitt and Mary Ellen Mark, and the work of 2020 contemporaries, including Kris Graves, Balazs Gardi and Zora J Murff.

Following Harbutt’s original concept, the new exhibition has the same chapter structure of the 1969 publication. Section titles such as The Streak of Violence, The Deep Roots of Poverty and The Battle for Equality, have palpable relevance today.

Lee Square, Richmond, Virginia, 2020. Courtesy of Sasha Wolf Projects © Kris Graves
Pink Sidewalk, Florida, 2017. From the series Floodzone, © Anastasia Samoylova

While bringing together these two eras of photography provides an opportunity to consider the shifts in documentary practice and image culture that have taken place over the last five decades, the overall aim of the show is to confront the enduring myth of American exceptionalism and question the nature of its ongoing ‘crisis’.

“I think a crisis to me implies a singular event or sliver in time and I feel that 2020 was a continuation. It was an expression of pain from wounds that have been festering in America since the founding of our country,” says photographer Leah Millis, whose work is featured in the show.

“Journalism is what truly matters to me and photography is the medium I use to tell stories, to show people what is going on,” Millis continues. “Diversity is critical in that context. Who is the person behind the lens? We’re all individuals and we all work to be fair journalists but we do all bring our perspectives and experiences. That really matters.”

America in Crisis is on display at Saatchi Gallery in London until April 3; saatchigallery.com