Devin Allen, A Beautiful Ghetto @Gordon Parks Foundation

JTF (just the facts): A total of 36 black and white photographs, variously framed and matted, and hung against white walls in the single room gallery space (with a dividing wall). All of the works are archival pigment prints, made in 2015 and printed recently. Physical sizes range from roughly 8×10 to 34×52 and no edition information was provided. The show also includes 1 magazine cover. A monograph of this body of work was recently published by Haymarket Books (here) and is available from the gallery for $25. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: The baseline facts of Freddie Gray’s death in Baltimore in April of 2015 are generally well understood. Gray, a 25 year-old black man, was arrested for running away from police and was tossed in a police van and violently bounced around as he was driven to the station. By the time he arrived, his spinal cord had been largely severed and he soon slipped into a coma, dying several days later from the injuries he had sustained while in police custody.

At the national level, Gray’s death was seen as yet another episode in a long running pattern of police misconduct, and coming on the heels of the riots in Ferguson, Missouri, the previous year, the broader Black Lives Matter movement started to further coalesce around the growing awareness of the epidemic of police violence and the systematic lack of accountability for the lengthening string of preventable deaths. In the days following Gray’s death, the citizens of Baltimore rallied in the streets, and the peaceful protests spilled over into pockets of violence, the “Baltimore Uprising” leading to smashed cars, a burned CVS drugstore, and a looted shopping mall. And for most of the photojournalists who parachuted in to document the action, the story was one we have seen before all too many times – the simplified cocktail of white riot police, black protesters, angry shouting, and the descent into confrontation and destruction.

Devin Allen is not one of the outsiders who quickly drove to Baltimore to follow the unrest. He’s a local, a native of West Baltimore, and an amateur photographer who had honed his skills over the previous few years taking photographs around town. And while his now iconic picture of a solitary young black man running away from a rumbling crowd of riot police ultimately became a symbol for the explosive reality of contemporary race relations in America and graced the cover of Time magazine, Allen’s images of the protests, and more importantly, the social realities that came before and after, offer a sensitive perspective that go beyond the riot headlines and examine deeper currents of life in the city.

The fact that Allen’s photographs hang on the walls of the gallery at the Gordon Parks Foundation in Pleasantville, NY, is no accident. Allen’s approach picks up from the documentary path that Parks had set down decades earlier, particularly in terms of engaging the black community from the inside and acting as an informed visual storyteller who could bring more layered and nuanced perspectives of African-Americans to an outside world that was used to stereotypes.

What Allen’s pictures show so thoughtfully is that the flash point of the Freddie Gray situation was not an isolated one-off incident, but the boiling over of a pot that had been simmering for a very long time – the challenges being faced by the black community are systemic and deeply rooted, where poverty and unemployment mix with the influx of drugs, leading to the breakdown of the families and social structures that have traditionally bound the community together. This struggle has been taking place for decades in Baltimore, and continues. And while Allen is undeniably aware of these stubborn realities, he never lets his pictures fall into the toxicity of finger pointing and despair. Instead, he has patiently documented what he calls “A Beautiful Ghetto”, an overlooked place where the pain and violence are countered with supportive community gatherings, hopeful role models, block parties, and town hall meetings.

While a few of Allen’s images of the uprising actually do capture car windshields being stomped on and tense face offs (and fist fights) between police and protesters, they largely place themselves inside the movement of the crowds, where the faceless mob is transformed into a collection of real individuals. Gestures often give the pictures their power – arms help up in “don’t shoot me” submission, fists raised in solidarity and defiance, hands held behind backs as though handcuffed, hands held together forming a chain, and forearms crossed in full-throated anger, each offering authentic (and visually symbolic) reactions. Young men make up the majority of the protesters, but Allen’s images sensitively capture a broader cross section of people – women, children, the elderly, even a few toddlers held on shoulders – and the fact that so many everyday families and residents came out to have their voices heard changes the tone of how we see these clashes, and the pervasive problems of negligence and abuse that provoked them.

Against this backdrop of anger and frustration, Allen’s photographs of the community before and after the protests offer a more measured and balanced view. Almost all of his pictures are taken on the streets, documenting life as it spills out onto the sidewalks. Improvised shrines (with teddy bears and liquor bottles) are tied to lamp posts and many buildings have burned out or boarded up windows, but these signs of decay and trauma are balanced by many more compassionate views of more positive forces at work. Kids hang from pipes like Spiderman, swing on playground swings, dance on the train platform, and generally goof off for the camera with wide contagious smiles, while grown ups and families gather in clusters to talk on stoops and keep a watchful eye. Community pride comes through in dozens of subtle ways, from young men ready to sweep up and temporary barbershops springing up out in the open air, to poignant painted murals that celebrate the dead and block parties that bring whole neighborhoods together. These pictures resolutely fit into the humanistic documentary tradition, with echoes of the kinds of stories that would have interested Gordon Parks.

As an early career look at the work of a self-taught photographer, this show is evidence that Allen’s work is full of promise, and his 2017 Fellowship from the Gordon Parks Foundation should give him some breathing room to continue to work on his storytelling craft. That he has aimed some of his recent effort at putting cameras into the hands of the kids of Baltimore says that he’s still very much committed to the ongoing success of his community, and is optimistic enough about its future to invest in artistically empowering its youth. Allen has chosen to search out and nurture a potent mix of honesty and uplift in his photography, and the authenticity of his approach feels like it is generating real momentum.

Collector’s POV: Since this is effectively a museum show, there are no prices for the works on view. Devin Allen does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time, so interested collectors should likely follow up with the artist directly via his website (linked in the sidebar).

Read more about: Devin Allen, Gordon Parks Foundation, Haymarket Books

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