Motor City Underground: Leni Sinclair photographs 1963-1978
Edited by Cary Loren and Lorraine Wild
(Detroit Museum of Contemporary Art and Foggy Notion Books, 2021)
Last spring, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Detroit exhibited Automobile city metro, a retrospective of Leni Sinclair’s photography that was both timely and long overdue. As the co-founder of the anti-racist 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 were also central to this city’s independent music scene, dating 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 iconic photographs of Sinclair’s jazz and rock musicians were taken at the Ann Arbor blues and jazz festivals that she helped John organize throughout the 1970s. Call Sinclair a Participating Watcher – a anthropological term which she often attributes to herself – is almost modest, to the point of being an understatement. It is difficult to think of another artist as tremendously involved in the work of her time.
The MOCAD exhibit seemed designed in conversation with last summer’s Black Lives Matter movement, following the murder of George Floyd by police officer Derek Chauvin. The spectacle unfolded throughout Chauvin’s trial and sentencing, the footage inside a powerful reminder that all of this has 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 attached monograph, Motor City Underground: Leni Sinclair photographs 1963-1978, edited by Loren and Wild and published by MOCAD / Foggy Notion, is the show’s original source and represents, beyond a magnificent and well-crafted collection of works, a potent primary source of mid-century radicalism , with endless insights into the militant 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 an exhibition memento – has the value of feeling essential. It features detailed reproductions of Sinclair’s photographs, often enlarged to full page, as well as a wide variety of testimonials – direct quotes, text excerpts, lyrics and poetry – by and about the people portrayed in them. The range of dates and sources through which these statements are gathered suggests years of research on the part of Loren and Wild, who in the course of their work must have combed nearly a decade of underground missives – the type of ephemeral that often does not make digital archives. A single distinctive image of a poet or musician, usually accompanied by a statement from them, serves to introduce many of the countless characters Sinclair encountered throughout his prime. This concise treatment essentially reproduces in miniature the publicity work that the Sinclairs were doing at the time; many of the photographs here were first used in large format newspapers or newspapers, publicizing upcoming shows sponsored by the White Panther Party and their collective Trans-Love Energies, and it was often John who led and published the interviews that accompanied them. Perhaps this is why the book works so strangely well as a straightforward narrative. The photos presented here have almost always been taken with the interest of promoting an agenda, and have often been displayed alongside the same texts as today.
Sinclair’s photographs represent something close to the height of the medium’s potential, particularly in their ability to balance beauty with information. Automobile city metro aptly begins with the 1963 March on Washington, an event Leni, who was born in Germany in 1940, attended after living in the United States for less than four years. The photos taken there already reveal an interest in the messaging of protest panels, and the expressions and formations of a collective body. The essential object of focus in Sinclair’s photography, whether capturing protests or concert performances, is the dynamic between a lonely, projected figure and the collective response of the crowd. As an organizer, activist and promoter of underground shows throughout her life, she has generally positioned herself somewhere in between, an ambiguous space between action and reaction that has allowed her to identify with both.
His images of Iggy Pop, Aretha Franklin, Albert King, Prince and Fela Kuti are the most reproduced and easily accessible. While many of them were taken towards the end of her political career, after she settled into a more traditional family life and the music festivals she and John were hosting were not overtly propagandistic , it’s worth noting that Sinclair’s skillful understanding of light and framing was available. to her right out of the door. A first part of the book shows two photos of John Coltrane, performing at the Drome Lounge in Detroit in 1966. On the left, a single crisp photo of Coltrane on sax (the better known of the two); on the right, an exhilarating long exposure that captures the vociferous movement of his solo, as the twinkling lights of his instrument cascade through the frame. The image replicates and implies its singular sound. After 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 indebted to the stupid constraints of her assignments. She was natural, so much so that we are taken for granted that the technical and development components of her profession are largely acquired.
Yet clearly absent from Automobile city metro are images which could be described as from the private life of the artist. Without a certain sense of interiority and, perhaps, ambivalence about a policy to which she was so singularly committed, we find ourselves after 400 pages of seeing what Sinclair saw, strangely removed from her. point of view – so calm and transparent that it looks like the eye of a calamitous storm. (Sinclair’s only interview in the book, with Kristine McKenna, only amplifies that feeling.) His move. Even Sinclair’s own children rarely appear in the book, and largely in contexts that smell like 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 United Nations recruiting center. CIA), reading the Selection of military writings by Mao Tse-Tung, and laughter of Lenin What is there to do? On the opposite page, child Celia Sanchez Mao Sinclair crawls into the lap of a stoic Huey P. Newton, recently acquitted of his highly speculated murder trial. It’s hard to imagine these photos in a family album, unless, of course, your family is the White Panther Party.
At the very least, our sense of distance from Sinclair is relieved by the total closeness she had to her subjects. Throughout two decades, she has been so involved in her community’s struggle that by simply documenting the actions of those around her, she has created a radical testimony of lasting historical value. The collection of these photos by MOCAD, as well as the careful conservation and reproduction of them in Automobile city metro, can now offer generations who have not lived civil rights and hippie movements the idealistic intimacy of that time. Sinclair’s work today serves as a vital archive of the ideology of the time as well as a document on the distance between these dreams and our reality.