This smart show surveyed the work Charlotte Brooks made between 1951 and 1971, when she was the only woman photographer on staff at Look magazine, a competitor of the more popular Life. Lavishly illustrated magazines such as Look and Life paved the way for celebrity gossip tabloids like People and Us Weekly, as well as the more socially conscientious photo-stories or videos regularly produced today by the New York Times. In these contexts, pictures tell the real story; text merely provides details.
Brooks was a queer Jewish photographer who lived with her partner in the West Village at its bohemian height, and the arc of her time at Look coincided with the tumultuous struggles of the civil rights and women’s and gay liberation movements. The exhibition presented the photographs and contact sheets used to assemble eight of her photo-essays, ranging from profiles of celebrities such as Cuban singer La Lupe to depictions of a young single mother’s daily grind. Even for seemingly glamorous assignments, like “Duke Ellington: A Living Legend Swings On,” published in Look in 1957, Brooks took great pains to present a broad view of her subject’s life: she shot dozens of images of Ellington playing baseball with his band in the parking lot of a Southern hotel, the word colored featured prominently on the hotel’s neon sign.
In a profile titled “A New Job for Joan,” which came out in 1963, Brooks followed Joan Murray, a twenty-five-year-old African-American woman who was trying to break into the television industry and was employed at the time as a secretary for “Candid Camera.” The photos of Murray at work foreground her in such a manner that she towers over the white men who supervise her, epitomizing professionalism, while photos of her in off hours show her more relaxed, yet always polished and poised. The respect Brooks accords her subject is clear. In the most striking photo in the show, Murray is caught on a busy Manhattan avenue, hand shooting up into the air to hail a cab. In Look, the photo was captioned: “‘Darn it! The cab didn’t stop because he thought I was going to Harlem,’ Joan snaps, then sighs—reminded that it hurts to be a Negro.” The images on the contact sheet for this particular shoot are a dance of hope and disappointment, revealing the resignation on Murray’s face whenever a cab passes her by.
An especially gripping photo-essay follows a gay couple in Minnesota whose application for a marriage license was denied by a local judge. The 1971 story, titled “The Homosexual Couple,” describes Jack Baker and Michael McConnell’s fight for marriage equality. (The ensuing lawsuit, Baker v. Nelson, set the stage for the eventual legalization of same-sex marriage in 2015.) The images show the young, handsome couple engaged in the most ordinary of domestic tasks, such as cooking dinner together, hanging out with friends, even chatting with a church minister. Once again the contact sheet contains, in miniature, a number of powerful shots: a series of Baker and McConnell intertwined in bed, the white sheets rumpling as the rising sun radiates from the curtains behind them.