By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
The thing is, looking at these photos now, you’d think it would be difficult to filter out the bleak and ironic historical baggage that clings to the Panther legacy. But it isn’t so. Taken primarily at public rallies to support jailed party co-founder Huey Newton, these images capture a moment of tremendous hope and momentum for social change. Whatever you think of them, the Panthers were the last great public image of African-American consciousness and political engagement, and it shows on the faces in these photographs. It doesn’t hurt that Baruch and Jones were excellent photographers and the Panthers were brilliant visual propagandists. But what comes through most poignantly is that these were real people living their lives, not props in a political shadow play.
The humanizing effect of documentary photography is taken up a notch in Sylvia Sukop’s heart-rending essay on her late brother, Alex, who died in December 2000 of colon cancer at age 19. Following Alex’s diagnosis, Sukop stayed close to him, documenting his life on the Tolstoy Farm, an organic Washington state commune, and following his treatment, physical deterioration and death. We see him glowing with life as he lays out a tray of fresh strawberries to dry, we see his teenage torso mutilated by surgery and tangled in IV feeds, we see him dead. Augmenting this is a cluster of sweet photos from Alex’s childhood, part of a series documenting Sukop’s family from the 1970s on. The sense of mournful identification generated is enormous — this could so easily be you, or someone you love. Yet who could wish for a more loving and dignified sendoff?
Disrupting cultural hegemonies aside, herein lies the real power of the Abu Ghraib photographs — no matter how the prisoners may be verbally demonized, these are pictures of somebody’s brothers, somebody’s children. It sounds corny when you put it in words, but everybody gets the picture.
BLACK PANTHERS and ALEX, AMEN | 18th Street Arts Center, 1639 18th St., Santa Monica | Through July 23