“Our crisis today is the clash between the nation’s traditional vision of itself – the American Dream – and the hard, discordant realities it lives with.”
So begins the foreword of ‘America in Crisis’, a photography book conceived in 1969 for Magnum Photos by photographer Charles Harbutt and Lee Jones, bureau chief of Magnum New York. Featuring the work of several Magnum photographers, the book and accompanying exhibition turned a critical eye on the nation at a time of great social, political and cultural change.
Fifty years on, America is facing a similar social divide and many of the issues from 1969 are still relevant today. The original framework – considering the American Dream versus reality on the ground – still provides a fitting frame to examine what is happening today. Revisiting the 1969 project, the 2022 exhibition at Saatchi Gallery highlights the themes present in both eras, confronting the myth of American exceptionalism with the reality of current events.
The exhibition was curated by former Global Culture Director of Magnum Photos Sophie Wright, Gregory Harris from Atlanta’s High Museum of Art, and photographer and academic Tara Pixley. K&H was involved in this project from the beginning and – together with Sophie and Gregory – developed an overarching concept for the exhibition and played a central role in the conceptualization, design and development of the interactive installation.
From the start, the juxtaposing of both eras – 1969 to now was a main goal for this project. In order to show the conflicting and diverse facets of America, we wanted to mix historical and contemporary images. This resulted in a broad exhibition showing the deep roots of the country’s current troubles and featuring over 120 works from 40 American photographers. It offers a unique perspective from two key periods in American history: juxtaposing historical photographs and new works produced five decades later by diverse contemporary practitioners, during another tumultuous time in America. Explored within the exhibition are deeply rooted national debates concerning gun control and racial inequality, as well as topics of global impact such as the digital revolution and the climate crisis.
The graphic layer is a contemporary interpretation of the original book and exhibition. The bold and outspoken typography within the title of the 1969-book became the connecting agent of all exhibition elements and was reinterpreted for the overarching exhibitions visual identity.
The original exhibition, held at the Riverside Museum in New York, also included an experimental film and interactive installation, ‘The Picture Bandit’. The device randomly presented works from the project across three spools of a one-armed bandit gambling machine and critiqued the impact of the media on image consumption, gamifying the audience’s relationship to the images. In keeping with the interactive presentation of the original project, the 2022 exhibition also includes an immersive and interactive installation that speaks to contemporary image consumption.
In contrast to the original ‘Picture Bandit’ – which paired images together randomly – the 2022-installation shows the visitors curated selections of images based on certain keywords, such as ‘flag’, ‘crowd’ and ‘police’. By pressing a foot pedal, an infinite stream of images on 8 monolith screens is interrupted and – for a short period of time – the image selections show. This speaks to the way in which we are fed images nowadays: we all consume photographic images routinely throughout our day and are presented with what we like. By interacting with the installation, the visitor is made to think about what they are looking at exactly, and how they read pictures.
America in Crisis
Temporary exhibition and interactive installation
Client: Saatchi Gallery
Curated by: Sophie Wright, Gregory Harris and Tara Pixley
Concept, spatial and graphic design exhibition and interactive installation: Kummer & Herrman
Technical development interactive installation: Mr. Beam
Soundscape: Mr. Beam & Roel Slootman
Photo credits: David Axelbank
**** “This absorbing exhibition leaves you stupefied by the crisis that’s beginning.” – The Guardian
“Honest & thought-provoking imagery from those who are actually embedded in the stories.” – Port Magazine
“Striking” – CNN Style