Mel D. Cole, American Protest, Photographs 2020-2021

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2021 by Damiani Editore (here). Hardcover, 144 pages, with 170 black and white and color photographs. Includes lyrics by Jamie Lee Curtis and Blair Milbourne. (Cover and distribute the plans below.)

Comments/Background: Mel D. Cole is an acclaimed photographer who first became known for his images of famous musicians, from the Roots, A$AP Rocky and Kendrick Lamar to Erykah Badu and Beyoncé. After a successful commission to film a football game in Italy, Cole launched Charcoal Pitch FC, the first black-owned sports photography agency “dedicated to the creative exploration of football visually and educationally through a multiracial visual lens”. But the events of the past two years have led him to switch to a more photojournalistic approach. At the start of the COVID pandemic, he began documenting the streets of New York, and when Black Lives Matter protests after the murder of George Floyd erupted across the United States, Cole turned his camera to the broader history of BLM rallies and their ramifications.

His book American demonstration, Photographs 2020-2021 powerfully documents both Black Lives Matter protests and pro-Trump rallies, filmed over more than a year in New York City, as well as Washington, DC, Richmond, Houston, Philadelphia and Minneapolis. The book has a clear mission to document and share the current political moment, and does so with its straightforward title, simple design, and extensive on-the-ground photography. An image capturing a clash between protesters and counter-protesters at a Blue Lives Matter event in support of the police in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, appears on the cover, and inside, the visual feed is made up in large part of black and white photographs, their placement and number per page varying from page to page, highlighting the chaos of the various rallies and marches. A few color images appear throughout the book, emphasizing certain moments, and a simple list of captions identifying locations and dates are placed on the flyleaf.

The book opens with a photograph showing a group of police officers on the street holding a black man with his mouth open as he struggles in their grip. The photo was taken in New York on June 6, 2020, just about a week after George Floyd died in Minneapolis. The next broadcast combines two photos, each showing a handcuffed man, one of them holding his hands in an expressive gesture of grief. This is then followed by a full frame capturing police and protesters clashing in the street, seen from above. Many people wear masks in a year marked by both the pandemic and protests against racial injustice, and Cole’s images reflect the tensions, emotions and violence of the unfolding events.

Photos of Cole show people taking their demands to the streets – we see them marching, holding their protest signs, raising their fists in solidarity, camping near City Hall or dancing and drumming in celebration of the community. A portrait of a young woman wearing a mask reading “justice for Breonna Taylor” takes up most of a page and is followed by a full-bleed photo showing a mass protest and people with signs. Some of them read “white silence is violence”, “do him justice”, “happy birthday angel”. “What I’m looking for is emotion,” Cole says. “If I’m shooting a concert or backstage with a musician, I’m trying to tell a story to the world. So it’s the same skills, just a different environment. Later in the post, another striking photo captures a huge crowd near the Brooklyn Museum, all dressed in white, a historic moment of a massive rally in support of black trans lives; that day, around 15,000 people gathered to show their solidarity and support, and Cole was there to capture the scene.

Many violent moments are also captured in Cole’s photos. In one group, he documented the destruction wrought by looters as some took advantage of the chaos during protests: Nine images arranged in a grid showed storefronts, smashed windows, a burning police car, a vandalized ATM , as well as while the police were making arrests. While documenting the looting, Cole himself was harassed by the police, as they assumed he was one of the troublemakers.

In the second half of the book, the narrative shifts from the BLM movement to various counter-protests, showing pro-Trump rallies. Cole knew that in capturing this complicated historical moment he had to show the full range of events that unfolded. On January 6, he planned to document the pro-Trump rally and eventually found himself photographing the uprising at the US Capitol – he describes it as “the most terrifying day” ever. A powerful sweeping photograph shows officer Michael Fanone stuck in the middle of an angry crowd, with an American flag hanging above him and a number of “Make America Great Again” hats dotting the image.

The following broadcast combines eight small images showing both the chaos and violence as crowds stormed the Capitol, and the range of emotions displayed, including an enraged man waving an American flag, another person shouting to rally rioters and a third person in pain after being pepper sprayed. A large-scale photo shows the crowd pushing and climbing a wall and waving American flags. Another posting shows three images collated into a single line on the page: a portrait of a young black man wearing a MAGA hat, a group of nuns holding a “Stand with Trump” sign, and a group of Orthodox Jews with a “save America”. poster. Cole’s images powerfully capture the drama of unprecedented political riots and insurgency in the nation’s capital.

By the end of the book, Cole has come full circle, returning to images of BLM protesters and graffiti-covered Confederate monuments. It seems to say that those moments of having the courage to stand up for justice are key to our collective history. They bring communities together, inspire action and drive social and political change.

American protest is a simple book documenting a complex moment of profound social upheaval, focusing on the human experience in times of injustice. Cole’s photographs thoughtfully document the chaos, tension and violence of the larger moment. They also show the courage of people forced to act in the face of oppression. His series extends the legacy of the civil rights movement, giving it a contemporary context and once again depicting a nation at a crossroads.

Collector’s point of view: Mel D. Cole doesn’t seem to have a consistent gallery representation at the moment. Therefore, collectors interested in following should probably connect directly with the artist via their website (linked in the sidebar).

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