Demonstrators in front of the U.S. Capitol, April 1971

Thousands of demonstrators gather in front of the U.S. Capitol in opposition to the Vietnam War, April 1971. The protestors are largely members of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Photo: Leonard Freed

'Doing Democracy'

Lehigh University Art Galleries puts democracy, in all its forms, on display.

Story by

Mary Ellen Alu

The black-and-white photos tell the story of democracy in action: The 1963 March on Washington. Angry demonstrators protesting segregation. People gathering to vote. And, enthusiastic delegates at the 1972 Democratic National Convention in Miami.

The photos—part of a collection given to Lehigh University Art Galleries (LUAG) by ABC News Chief Anchor and former Clinton White House advisor George Stephanopoulos—provide a window into significant events of the 20th century. The photos are part of LUAG’s exhibition, Doing Democracy, on display in the LUAG Main Gallery through May 21, 2021. 

“Almost all of us carry a camera in our pockets all the time now as a part of our phones,” says LUAG Director William Crow. “Taking photographs is something we don't even really think about anymore. It is so integrated into our daily lives. And yet, taking a photograph is a powerful act, and often it's a very political act. We don't often think about this consciously, but what we choose to photograph, how we frame that photograph, what's inside of the frame or outside of the frame—those are all choices that we make that communicate different ideas, not only about the subject matter but inwardly about who we are as people.”

Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and U.S. President Richard Nixon

Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and U.S. President Richard Nixon share a podium during the historic Moscow Summit, 1972. Photo: Dmitri Baltermants

Coinciding with the 2020 U.S. presidential election, the exhibition examines life in the United States and features everyday Americans as well as world leaders such as President Richard Nixon and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, civil rights icon John Lewis and segregationists George Wallace and Lester Maddox. Crow describes the photos as “formidable pieces.”

“All works of art can speak to people who have very different perspectives and backgrounds,” Crow says. “And so, these photographs are really a way for us to enter into a conversation about ‘what is democracy’ and ‘what does it mean to do democracy.’”

Since 2004, Stephanopolous, an avid collector, and his wife, Alexandra, have donated the more than 2,000 photographs to Lehigh from well-known photographers that include Arthur Rothstein, Erika Stone, Dmitri Baltermants, Danny Lyon, Leonard Freed, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Lehigh alum Lou Stoumen ’39.

Democracies, like museums, actually are places that get better the more people participate. … I hope people see this exhibition as not only an invitation, but really a requirement that we all need to participate in making meaning about our world and making informed decisions about our world, regardless of what one’s own opinions are. 

William Crow, LUAG Director

Crow says Stephanopolous wanted to share his collection with an academic museum so that the photographs could not only be enjoyed as works of art but also used as teaching tools.

“Many people ask if he is an alumnus of Lehigh. He's not,” Crow says. “But he is a great believer in works of art as vehicles for shared understanding about the world, which aligns very strongly with his career as a journalist and as a political expert.”

Photographs from the collection have been previously on view in the art galleries, usually as a single photograph or a small group of photographs. The 107 images selected for the current exhibition were co-curated with students and faculty from the departments of history, political science, communication, journalism, and art, architecture and design.

“This exhibition is a great way for the art galleries at Lehigh to be a platform for conversation and debate and ideas,” Crow says. “In our view, this is a moment in which our world needs more of that. Our world needs more spaces that are conveners, where people don't have to necessarily agree but where they should come together to express different ideas and opinions.”

In a behind-the-scenes online tour, Mark Wonsidler, LUAG’s curator of collections and exhibitions, provided an overview of the different sections of the exhibition: the civil rights narrative; the process of protest and change, both on the streets and in the halls of Congress; campaigns and elections; including the 1960 race between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon; leadership, and themes of everyday life, including factory work, a birthday party in suburban California, a Chinese school and patriotism on display in Puerto Rico.

Wonsidler says LUAG provides visitors with a slide frame to encourage them to think about how they might have framed or cropped the photos differently. “What we’re seeing in the exhibition are the many, many, many decisions that photographers have made about what content was inside of their frame or outside of their frame and what they wanted to focus their camera on in the first place,” Wonsidler says. “The reality of who’s taking a photograph, where, and who has access, those are themes that run all the way through this exhibition.”

Patriotism on display at wedding in Puerto Rico

A wedding ceremony in Puerto Rico, 1941. Though it’s unclear why President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s portrait is in the center, it may depict an appreciation for Roosevelt, who was attempting to assist Puerto Rico as America recovered from the Great Depression. Photo: Lehigh alum Lou Stoumen ’39

Students narrated 20 short videos that describe the images in the context of democracy. In one video, Jimmy Mora ’20 discusses Erica Stone’s Harlem Beggar, taken in the 1950s. An impoverished man smiles as he sits beneath the word “bills” that is printed over and over on a black-and-white wall that’s behind him.

“This might serve as a reminder that we, in part, exist in solidarity with this man as we have all, at one point or another, come to understand the financial pressures that come with being underneath bills and other forms of that,” Mora says. “In this smile, we are reminded that misfortune is not something against which any person is granted immunity, and that we all stand to gain in being more aware and compassionate toward the conditions of our fellow man.

“If many Americans find themselves a few paychecks away from poverty, why do we often stigmatize the homeless and turn a blind eye to their struggles?” he asks. “Moreover, how can our society continue to progress if we are comfortable leaving people behind?”

In another video, Sara Sanchez Rivera ’23 discusses Leonard Freed’s March on Washington, taken in 1963. The photo, which documents a pivotal moment in history, shows men and women exercising their First Amendment rights. “It tells the story of a power struggle and of race,” she says. “To others, it continues to tell the story of the fight for equality and freedom from discrimination.” The issues are still relevant today, she says.

In conjunction with the exhibition, LUAG is hosting a series of related programs that provide a platform for people of differing political perspectives to share their ideas and opinions. A presentation in October with Lehigh journalism professors titled Art in Dialogue: The Media and the Truth examined the ethics and challenges that photojournalists confront in documenting current events. Do photographs and videos convey the truth to the American people? What issues are at stake with the media and the complaints of “fake news”?

Participating were Jack Lule, Iacocca professor and chair of the Department of Journalism and Communication and professor of global studies; Matthew Veto, professor of practice and faculty advisor to The Brown & White student newspaper, and Lehigh videographer Stephanie Veto.

“Photos and video are incredibly powerful tools,” said Stephanie Veto. “There are photos … that have helped change the course of history. They have helped to end wars, create public outcry, show us beauty and horrors around the world and in our own backyard. They can humanize something that seems like it shouldn’t be our problem. Visual journalists give a voice to the voiceless. … You’ve got people stranded during floods and hurricanes, people fighting for their land, losing everything because of addiction, showing the loss from a pandemic, families separated at the borders, refugees from across the world in devastating conditions, the list goes on and on. If you don't see it, it's difficult to learn about it, or to even care. Well, photos and videos can help us care.” 

Twenty-two reproductions of key photographs from the Doing Democracy exhibition, including Harlem Beggar and “March on Washington,” are on display along the South Bethlehem Greenway, near the Lehigh campus. Each 4-by-8-foot easel includes a QR code that links to additional information and the short videos narrated by Lehigh students. At an event in October held in conjunction with the SouthSide Arts District, visitors had an opportunity to register to vote, meet community members and create political posters or buttons.

“The underlying message is really about participation,” Crow says. “Democracies, like museums, actually are places that get better the more people participate. … I hope people see this exhibition as not only an invitation, but really a requirement that we all need to participate in making meaning about our world and making informed decisions about our world, regardless of what one's own opinions are.”

Story by

Mary Ellen Alu

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