PHILADELPHIA — Few photographers have become as well known as quickly as Devin Allen, a 27-year-old Baltimore resident who took up the camera only three years ago.
When Baltimore rose up in anger after Freddie Gray suffered a fatal spinal injury in police custody in April, Allen took to the streets. Using small cameras and treading as lightly as he could amid the protests, Allen spent three weeks making almost 10,000 images of the events that became known as the Baltimore Uprising. He posted them on Instagram and encouraged followers to circulate them. One shot, picturing a man running from a crowd of police officers in riot gear and brandishing nightsticks, made it onto the cover of the May 11 issue of Time magazine — only the third time the work of an amateur photographer had been showcased there.
Late last month, an exhibition of Allen’s work — the first selected and curated by the photographer — was mounted in Philadelphia at the Slought Foundation, a nonprofit organization that mixes art, activism and philosophical dialogue. “A Beautiful Ghetto” proves Allen not only has a consistent and powerful photographic vision, but also can organize his work into compelling narratives and trenchant argument. If he was considered an amateur when Time highlighted his work last May, he certainly has lost that qualifier now. Allen is a ful-fledged documentary photographer on the front lines of many of the social currents that are roiling the current political season, exploring issues of race, equity, social cohesion and resistance.
It’s the last idea, resistance, that is felt most palpably throughout “A Beautiful Ghetto.” The word itself is unsettling, presupposing the existence of a corrupt and oppressing power, rather like the term “uprising” changes the debate about what actually happened in Baltimore— protests? Riots? Incipient revolution?
Allen’s work demonstrates a connection between resistance as a daily activity, a way of life in the ghetto, and resistance as a political act, as played out in the streets last spring. He documents resistance without judgment, without asking the usual questions that outsiders might: Is it justified? Is it effective? Is it legal? Resistance is represented not as a tactic, but as a fundamental aspect of life.
The show includes an introduction to the neighborhood in which Gray lived, a room devoted to the uprising in all its chaos and ambiguity, and video elements, including an endless loop of the now infamous footage of Gray’s arrest.
“I wanted people to understand what Freddie Gray faced every day,” says Allen. And so he begins with abandoned buildings, boarded up and in terminal decay. These are empty urban landscapes, a treeless world of hollow-eyed brick shells and empty stoops that lead to empty streets.
These haunting images give way to a more peopled world. A woman is glimpsed in the darkened door of a laundromat, boys on bicycles gather at a street corner, a woman photographs a young girl on a street full of people. The “beautiful” ghetto is a social overlay on broken houses and crumbling streets, and as that overlay takes shape, the environment becomes less forbidding.
Resistance, as a daily fact of life, is about coping with the indignities, inconveniences and injustices of living in neighborhoods that have experienced chronic disinvestment and neglect. If there are no benches, you sit on the curb. In one photograph, boys congregate at a corner marked by two stop signs. Both signs are pitched precariously off the vertical axis, wrenched from upright by unseen forces. The sign, with its unequivocal command, is a metaphor for the law, which is askew. In another, a dumpster is full of trash. The landscape around it is orderly, though sterile. If the image with the off-kilter stop signs suggests the absence of legitimate authority, the dumpster may suggest the provisional creation of order by the people who live in the housing nearby.
When Allen photographs people, he often finds someone in the crowd, and places them in sharp focus with the rest of the image more or less blurred. The camera isolates and humanizes, picking people out of anonymity, capturing their expression, dignifying their emotions.
Allen describes himself as an insider looking out — seeking an audience beyond his own community, and Baltimore — and an outsider looking in — a Baltimore resident who is nonetheless a stranger in some of the social micro-climates he documents. He admires the discipline that working with actual film imposed on earlier photographers, including Gordon Parks, whom he cites as an influence. And he tries to bring that same discipline to his work in digital photography.
“I find a subject and focus on that, make a spiritual connection, without even having to talk to the person,” he says. “If I talk to them, the connection would be severed.”
The second and third chapters of the exhibition are designed, he says, to make people uncomfortable. The uprising is documented on a wall where large-format images have been wheatpasted one atop another, into dynamic pattern that suggests the chaos and improvised leadership of the events in April. “You see people cleaning up, destroying, you see all these different phases of the uprising,” he says. “It wasn’t organized at all. Everybody just winged it. We didn’t have a plan.”
There’s no sanitizing the events, and there’s no apologizing for them, either. The people represented cut across racial lines, and presumably class ones, too. The police are both threatening, and human.
When Allen’s work was chosen for the cover of Time, the magazine wrote the date 1968 across his picture, then put a red line through it and wrote 2015 above. The implication was clear: Perhaps nothing had changed since the last time America’s cities seethed with burning anger. But there was a darker suggestion, too: That all protests somehow look alike, and that the energy fueling them is merely cyclical, a recurring fact of nature that afflicts cities like fires or earthquakes torment other places.
But Allen’s vision resists the implication that social anger is generic. He is a photographer of the specific, a seeker of detail, a personalizer of social space. Among his photographs is a young protester sitting on the street, holding a sign that reads: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” The words come from Desmond Tutu, repurposed for a new age of social justice activism, and they are also in a sense generic. But the striking composition of the image, the details of the urban environment, the police who encroach on the young person, all of this resists easy consumption and dismissal.
Allen’s photography also enacts the sentiment behind Tutu’s words, and reinvigorates them. It does not let you remain neutral.
A Beautiful Ghetto is on view at the Slought Foundation at 4017 Walnut St., in Philadelphia through March 4. For more information visit slought.org.