Portland native Bev Grant took her Pentax 35mm camera out on the streets of New York City after she moved there.
It changed her life.
Now, more than 50 years later, her images are being exhibited for the first time on the West Coast at Reed College’s Douglas F. Cooley Memorial Art Gallery. “Bev Grant Photography 1968-1972″ runs through June 11.
Grant, a young married secretary at the time she made the photographs, had started going to a feminist consciousness-raising group. She aimed her camera at the dedicated radicals who were inspiring her, members of the Young Lords, the Poor People’s Campaign, New York Radical Women, Vietnam Veterans Against the War.
She became “dedicated to the cause” and published some of her images in underground publications, says Stephanie Snyder, the curator of the Cooley Art Gallery.
“One of the most wonderful things about Bev’s very political photographs is she was an employee of a leftist newspaper at that time,” Snyder says. “She did not see herself as an artist. She saw herself as a reporter.”
As a result, she didn’t try to create beautiful, or artistic, images, Snyder says. She would walk around a scene with the camera held away from her body, or she’d put it on a table during a meeting, so “you really have the sense of being present with the people in the photograph.”
Grant’s life soon moved on. She turned to performing music, worked as a photo editor at a New York media company and became a mother. She stored the negatives of her early work in a shoebox and pushed it to the back of a closet.
But some of the images that had landed in the radical press, capturing the political passions of the time, the stark humanity of the subjects, refused to stay in obscurity. After receiving requests in recent years to republish various photographs, she pulled that shoebox out of the closet and started printing the images.
“I have well over 2,000 images that have been a delight for me to see, most of them for the first time,” Grant says on her website. “Some of them, I have no recollection of taking.”
The Cooley Art Gallery exhibit, organized by Snyder and noted art publisher Cay Sophie Rabinowitz, shows both mass demonstrations and quiet scenes in the counterculture movement.
Grant, now 80, was there in September 1968 when protesters showed up at the Miss America Pageant, chanting and waving bras over their heads.
“Let’s Judge Ourselves as People,” one of their signs read.
“Can Make-Up Cover the Wounds of Our Oppression?” offered another.
Grant hadn’t set out to establish a name for herself in photography. She was figuring out her place in the world, what it could be.
“The women’s movement was life-changing for me,” she told The New Yorker in 2018, when her images first resurfaced. “I started to discover who I was — that I was worthy.”
The images in the Cooley Art Gallery exhibit connect with current social activism in the U.S., Snyder states, but they also stand on the own, showcasing a unique and powerful moment in U.S. history — and Grant’s innate artistry.
“Grant’s work reanimates the rich contrasts and textures of black-and-white photography from the era, highlighting the physical power of the medium,” the gallery argues. “The exhibition images are as troubling, urgent and joyful today as they were 50 years ago.”
“Bev Grant Photography 1968-1972″ is free, but you can’t just show up. The Reed College campus hasn’t yet fully reopened to all. To see the exhibit, you have to sign up for a tour.
— Douglas Perry