MIAMI — The double portrait of father and son presents an extraordinarily intimate experience on the usually busy public plaza surrounding the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in North Miami which is currently closed. On a recent weekend, the plaza was a lonely place baking in harsh sunlight, thanks to Covid-19 restrictions against people gathering in groups. Closed due to the pandemic, MOCA commissioned photojournalist Carl Juste to create a large-scale version of his photograph “I Am A Man,” originally published in the Miami Herald. “I Am A Man” is sited on the plaza, near the museum’s entrance, overlooking a reflecting pool. With this placement, few distractions prevent passersby from coming face to face with Memphis sanitation workers Elmore Nickleberry and son Terence. They’re captured in a historic moment, one that’s densely layered with memories of battles against racial injustice.
In 2008, Juste and his Miami Herald colleague Leonard Pitts, Jr. traveled to visit Memphis to cover the 40th anniversary of the Memphis sanitation workers strike, meeting the elder Nickleberry who had taken part in that strike. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had come to Memphis to march with the workers on April 3, 1968; he was assassinated in that city the following day. When Juste and Pitts traveled to Memphis, Barack Obama was campaigning to become the first Black president of the United States.
In the summer of 2020, the world has been rocked by unprecedented twin crises of a pandemic, that disproportionately affects Blacks and people of color, and Black Lives Matter protests. These events play out against the drumbeat of racist rhetoric and actions issuing from the Trump administration. Magnified by the situation of severely limited public access to art indoors, Juste’s black and white photograph is both haunting and timely.
“I Am A Man” evokes grievous wounds to spirit and body as well as the resilient determination necessary to face down repeated assaults on human dignity.
A watershed event in the tumultuous year of 1968, the Memphis sanitation workers strike was sparked by a horrendous event in February. Two workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, were riding in the back of a garbage truck to shelter from rain when the truck’s compacter activated and crushed them to death. It was the final straw for the routinely disrespected sanitation workers. They went on strike, demanding better pay and working conditions. They carried signs reading “I Am A Man.” The message defied the common practice of calling a Black man “boy,” an insult dating back to the era of slavery.Their strike galvanized support from King and other civil rights leaders.
While Juste’s photograph is deeply connected to battles for racial justice, it is also a testament to his artistic eye. Since the early 20th century, photographers such as Ansel Adams and Edward Weston have adapted the Old Master painting technique of chiaroscuro, using extreme contrasts of light and dark to create powerful portraits of the natural world. Weston’s 1930 gelatin silver print “Pepper” spotlights a vegetable’s swelling forms to suggest a human figure. Adams’ 1940 gelatin silver prints “Surf Sequence” portray the rippling texture of ocean surf, melding realism and abstraction. These black and white photographs owe their formal elegance to chiaroscuro.
At MOCA, Juste’s use of chiaroscuro conveys a different kind of expressive power. Elegantly framing his subjects against solid black, he reveals closely observed details, like the sheen of their ties and crisp white shirts. His figures are fixed in a featureless space, bold sentinels to history. Viewed at a time when historic monuments elevating Confederate and colonial powers are attacked, the father and son in Juste’s photograph could be warriors carved in granite monuments as insistent responses to racist histories.
Juste never lets us forget these warriors’ resolute, visceral dignity. While the smooth-faced son looks in our direction, his father’s time-worn countenance is captured in profile. He dominates the foreground, gazing to a place we cannot see. Juste portrays both men in the kind of formal clothing that is worn by well-regarded professionals, recognizing their dignity in a way their own profession would not.