The archive of photographer, filmmaker and musician Bev Grant reveals arresting scenes of 1960s America

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Demonstration in New Haven, CT protesting the trial of Black Panther leaders, Erika Huggins and Bobbie Seale. Copyright Bev Grant. Courtesy of OSMOS.

Featuring Black Panthers, Fidel Castro, and feminist protest, a new monograph compiles her images of the radical

In the summer of 2017, the musician Bev Grant began to digitise some 2500 negatives that she stored in a shoebox since the 1970s, and shared the archive on Facebook. Her images of the United States in the late 1960s were something to behold. It was a period of fervent activism, and Grant was at its forefront. Her images of women protesting the Miss America Beauty Pageant in 1968 remain iconic, and significantly, it was Grant who helped organise the action. 

As a photographer and filmmaker involved with the political action of the era, Grant enjoyed unrivalled proximity to its mainstays. In 1969, she travelled to Cuba to document the communist regime first-hand; a close-up of Fidel Castro side-on as he addresses a large crowd in Havana is evidence of such. By the early 1970s, as the political optimism of the previous decade “fizzled out” in the face of sectarianism, Grant turned her focus to making music, and continues to write and perform social activism songs today. Now, aged 79, she is the focus of a new monograph, published by OSMOS books, that will explore an exhaustive archive amassed in a short yet formative period of time.

January 02, 1969. Fidel speaking at the 10th Anniversary of the Revolution in Revolutionary Plaza with the image of Ché Guevara over his shoulder. Havana, Cuba. Copyright Bev Grant. Courtesy of OSMOS.

Though Grant was not trained in photography, picking up a camera gave her a sense of purpose; “I was trying to make the revolution with all my colleagues,” she says, recalling how she learned to shoot, to edit and to cut negatives on the go. As a photographer and filmmaker, Grant worked for the radical documentary filmmaking group, Newsreel, and supplied images to Liberation News Service – a “sort of radical underground Associated Press,” she explains. Grant’s involvement with the political activity of the time meant she was “in places that no other photographer or filmmaker could go”.

For every image used as political propaganda, it’s the memory of the everyday that feels particularly poignant today. Throughout Grant’s oeuvre tender moments and community gestures feature as often as the large displays of protest. Of her images of the Black Panthers in Harlem, for example, a shared moment between two young boys enjoying food, courtesy of the Panther’s Free Breakfast Programme, stands out. The photographer’s eye captures the innocence of childhood; the badges on one boy’s beret, Free Bobby, Free Huey, a stark reminder of the civil unrest of the era. Grant cherishes her ability to refer to the Panthers as “community organisers,” rather than a group demonised by the FBI.

September 07, 1968, Miss America Beauty Pageant protest in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Copyright Bev Grant. Courtesy of OSMOS.

Grant says she is surprised by the interest in her photography, seeing herself as “a cultural worker more than an artist.” That sentiment makes this body of work so important; its timeliness and relevance to ongoing struggles are reflected in the normalcy and visible humanity afforded by Grant’s gaze. This is summarised best by the photographer herself, recognising that she isn’t an “objective photographer coming from the outside but rather, somebody who was part of what was going on.”

Bev Grant: Photography 1968-1972 is published by OSMOS. 

Ellen Brown

Ellen is a writer interested in exploring art, photography and design in the context of broader political and cultural moods. She is also editor at NR Magazine, a fashion and lifestyle publication.