Bev Grant is best known as a musician, who in 1970 wrote the song ‘Tired of the Fuckers Fucking Over Me’. Also a filmmaker and an organizer, she happened to make pictures. She moved to New York City in the 1960s from Oregon, where she took a secretarial job to support her husband, and later, a boyfriend – an abusive jazz musician whom she finally left after he threw away her copy of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1949). Grant attended her first anti-war demonstration in 1967, and meetings of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) shortly thereafter; by this time, she’d moved to the Lower East Side, bought a Pentax 35mm camera and become a radical.
The resulting photographs, all made in 1968, are on display (accompanied by a series of screenings and discussions) at Osmos. The Lower East Side gallery is uniquely suited to house the material: in the 1880s, the storefront space was home to Schawb's Saloon, a hub for radical thought and social activism, including its own anarchist newspaper (Emma Goldman was a regular). This spirit of progressive resistance permeates the photographs that hang on the walls, each of which depict the actions of the subsequent New Left movement. The Motherfuckers Occupy the Fillmore East (all images 1968) depicts the titular anarchist group – ‘a street gang with analysis’ that is said to have inspired the Weather Underground; Anti-Imperialism March captures New Left protesters in Washington Square Park; Rockefeller Center depicts women marching for legal abortion five years before Roe v. Wade; W.I.T.C.H Hexes Wall Street, one of several images of the Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell’s staged political actions, depicts incantations cast at surprised stock traders. Other images portray the Black Panther Free Breakfast for Children Program, anti-Vietnam War marches and the protests surrounding the 1968 Miss America Pageant.
The small but impressive display includes just over a dozen photographs as well as one mounted collage, which Grant made from her original prints for this show. It’s a funky object – the black mat board bows, some air bubbles protrude where glue was not spread evenly – but perhaps the most vital in the show. Like the best of Grant’s work, it feels agitated and alive. However beautiful her framed photographs appear under glass, part of me wishes to see all of her work presented in this manner.
While no single event dominates this grouping, the photographs from the Miss America pageant are perhaps Grant’s best known, even if their author often went unrecognized. They depict the protest, organized by the New York Radical Women, that took place outside of the annual event in Atlantic City, in which activists threw objects, including bras – into a ‘freedom trash can’, auction off a giant Miss America puppet, and parade a sheep wearing a sash around the boardwalk. Grant snuck inside the pageant, along with others who threw stink bombs, and released a giant banner that read ‘LIBERATION’. One iconic shot captures a bikini-clad contestant, lit onstage, with the oversized head of a man in the foreground, a cigar hanging loosely from his mouth.
Critically, these pictures – which are among the earliest depictions of feminist (a movement then identified as ‘women's liberation’) action in the streets – depict joy as much as they do profound anger. Women, who are fighting against their societal degradation and dismissal as sex objects, appear both fierce and delighted; fueled by optimism, they sing, laugh and revel in their communion and public misbehaviour. The same is true across other kinds of protests here, whether they record ‘F the Draft’ protests or women marching for peace. Activism necessarily courts frustration and rapture in measure. As I type these words, I am watching Christine Blasey Ford testify about her sexual assault before the US Senate, and am reminded of the profound value of this lesson.
'1968 from the Ben Grant Archive' ran at Osmos, New York, from 7 September – 30 October 2018.
Main image: Bev Grant, Rockefeller Center, New York, 1968 (detail), inkjet print, 67 × 101 cm. Courtesy: the artist and OSMOS, New York
First published in Issue 199