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The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2021

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SEPT 2021 Issue
Art Books

Motor City Underground: Leni Sinclair Photographs 1963–1978

Unlike so many other exhibition monographs—which are often treated as something between a program guide and show souvenir—Motor City Underground presents detailed reproductions of Sinclair’s photographs, often blown up to full-page, alongside a wide variety of testimony.

Motor City Underground: Leni Sinclair Photographs 1963–1978
Edited by Cary Loren and Lorraine Wild
(Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit and Foggy Notion Books, 2021)

This past spring, the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit exhibited Motor City Underground, a retrospective of Leni Sinclair’s photography that was both timely and long overdue. As a co-founder of the antiracist White Panther Party, Sinclair was a leading figure in her Detroit community, establishing cooperatives and organizing protests with national repercussions. She and her husband John also occupied a central position in that city’s independent music scene, hanging with jazz artists Charles Moore and Archie Shepp, and hosting performances by Sun Ra and Janis Joplin—all while John acted as manager for MC5, a band widely credited with the advent of punk. Many of Sinclair’s iconic photographs of jazz and rock musicians were taken at the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festivals she helped John organize throughout the 1970s. To call Sinclair a participant observer—an anthropological term she often assigns herself—is almost modest to the point of understatement. It is hard to think of another artist as formidably involved in the action of her time.

The MOCAD exhibition seemed crafted in conversation with last summer’s Black Lives Matter movement, following the murder of George Floyd by police officer Derek Chauvin. The show was up through Chauvin’s trial and sentencing, the images inside a potent reminder that this has all happened too often before. As an archival project, however, the retrospective began long before these events—in 2010, as a collaboration between curators Cary Loren and Lorraine Wild; the founding staff of Foggy Notion Books; and the late Detroit artist Mike Kelley. In this sense, the accompanying monograph, Motor City Underground: Leni Sinclair Photographs 1963–1978, edited by Loren and Wild and published by MOCAD/Foggy Notion, is the original source of the show, and represents, beyond a beautiful and well-designed collection of work, a powerful primary source of mid-century radicalism, with endless insights into the activist culture that helped define the era.

The book, unlike so many other exhibition monographs—which are often treated as something between a program guide and show souvenir—has the value of feeling essential. It presents detailed reproductions of Sinclair’s photographs, often blown up to full-page, alongside a wide variety of testimony—direct quotes, excerpted text, lyrics, and poetry—by and about the people depicted in them. The range of dates and sources across which these statements are culled suggests years of research on the part of Loren and Wild, who in the course of their work must have combed through nearly a decade’s worth of underground missives—the type of ephemera that does not often make it into digital archives. A single distinctive image of a poet or musician, usually accompanied by a statement from them, serves to introduce many of the myriad characters Sinclair met throughout her heyday. This concise treatment essentially replicates in miniature the publicity work the Sinclairs were doing at the time; many of the photographs here were first put to use in broadsheets or newspapers, spreading the word about upcoming shows sponsored by the White Panther Party and their Trans-Love Energies collective, and it was often John who was conducting and publishing the interviews accompanying them. This is perhaps why the book functions so eerily well as a straightforward narrative. The photos displayed here were almost always taken with the interest of promoting an agenda, and were often deployed alongside the same texts as now.

Sinclair’s photographs represent something close to an apogee of the medium’s potential, particularly in their ability to balance beauty with information. Motor City Underground begins, fittingly, with the 1963 March on Washington, an event which Leni, who was born in Germany in 1940, attended after having lived in the United States for less than four years. The photos taken there already disclose an interest in the messaging of protest signs, and the expressions and formations of a collective body. The essential object of focus in Sinclair’s photography, whether she is capturing protests or concert performances, is the dynamic between a lone, projecting figure and the collective response of the crowd. As an organizer, activist, and underground show promoter throughout her life, she was usually positioned somewhere in between these two—an ambiguous space between action and reaction that allowed her to identify with both.

Courtesy MOCAD.
Courtesy MOCAD.

Her images of Iggy Pop, Aretha Franklin, Albert King, Prince, and Fela Kuti are her most reproduced and readily accessible. While many of them were taken near the end of her political career, after she had settled down into more traditional family life and the music festivals she and John were organizing were not overtly propagandistic, it’s notable that Sinclair’s deft understanding of light and framing were available to her right out of the gate. An early spread in the book shows two photos of John Coltrane, playing a show at Detroit’s Drome Lounge in 1966. On the left is a single clean shot of Coltrane on the sax (the more well-known of the two); on the right, an exhilarating long-exposure that captures the clamoring motion of his solo, as the lights glinting off his instrument cascade across the frame. The image replicates and implicates his singular sound. Following such a diptych it’s a shock, 50 pages later, to discover that Leni was still a photography student at Wayne State University at the time, and beholden to silly constraints of her assignments. She was a natural, so much so that we are left to take the technical and developmental components of her craft largely for granted.

Yet conspicuously absent from Motor City Underground are any images that could be described as of the artist’s private life. Without some sense of inwardness, and, perhaps, ambivalence about a politics she was so singularly committed to, we are left after 400 pages of seeing what Sinclair saw, strangely distanced from her perspective—so calm and transparent it resembles the eye of a calamitous storm. (Sinclair’s sole interview in the book, with Kristine McKenna, only amplifies this feeling.) It is simply quite possible that she never took photos relating to herself, her feelings, her internecine doubts, since such things would be a sign of bad faith for her movement. Even Sinclair’s own children appear infrequently in the book, and largely in contexts that smack of propaganda. We see Sunny Sinclair as a small child, curled up against a wall with White Panther co-founder Pun Plamondon (at the time, on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list for bombing a CIA recruitment center), reading the Selected Military Writings of Mao Tse-Tung, and laughing over Lenin’s What is to Be Done? On the opposite page, the infant Celia Sanchez Mao Sinclair crawls across the lap of a stoic Huey P. Newton, recently acquitted from his much-speculated murder trial. It is difficult to imagine these photos inside a family album—unless, of course, your family was the White Panther Party.

At the very least, our sense of distance from Sinclair is relieved by the total proximity she had with her subjects. Throughout the course of two decades, she was so involved in her community’s struggle that, by merely documenting the actions of those around her, she created a radical testimony of lasting historical value. MOCAD’s collection of these photos, and the painstaking curation and reproduction of them in Motor City Underground, may now provide generations who did not live through the civil rights and hippie movements with the idealistic intimacy of those times. Sinclair’s work today serves as a vital archive of the period’s ideology as well as a document of the distance between these dreams and our reality.


Nolan Kelly

Nolan Kelly is a writer and filmmaker based in Brooklyn, NY.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2021

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