Update: 30 January 2012. I've just seen a small but superb exhibition of Grey Villet's photos at the International Center of Photography, in New York. It includes the photo directly below and about 20 others that he made while working on the story about interracial love for Life magazine. I learned a few fascinating new things about Villet and the family he photographed and have added some comments and two photos to the end of this post.
Every now and then, the gods send you a moment of serendipity -- something unexpected that shoots a small shiver of delight up your spine -- whether you deserve it or not. I had one of those moments, yesterday, when my friend Chuck Mathewes emailed me a link to a slideshow on the New York Times' website -- "The Case of Loving v. Bigotry". The second photo in the series (that's it directly below) made me smile because what is says about the culture of drag racing.
Let me explain.
Grey Villet: Richard and Mildred Loving watching drag races from the pit area, Sumerduck dragway, Sumerduck, Va., 1965. [Click on the image to see a larger version.]
This photo wasn't intended to be about drag racing. As far as Life magazine and its photographer, Grey Villet, were concerned, it was about an important episode in American history.
Villet made the image in 1965, while he was working on a story about Richard and Mildred Loving, a couple challenging the constitutionality of Virginia's law prohibiting marriage between partners of different races. Here's how the Times' Julie Bosman tells the story:
In 1958, Richard and Mildred Loving were arrested in a nighttime raid in their bedroom by the sheriff of Caroline County, Va. Their crime: being married to each other. The Lovings -- Mildred, who was of African-American and Native American descent, and Richard, a bricklayer with a blond buzz cut -- were ordered by a judge to leave Virginia for 25 years. ...[The Lovings struggled] to return home after living in exile in Washington, where Mildred, gentle in person but persistent on paper, wrote pleading letters to Robert F. Kennedy and the A.C.L.U. Two lawyers took their case to the Supreme Court, which struck down miscegenation laws in more than a dozen states. The Lovings' belief in the simple rightness of their plea never wavered.
It's a tremendous story, no doubt about it. But that's not what gave me a charge when I saw the photo. The thrill comes from knowing that it makes perfect sense that the Lovings could relax at a drag strip. The photo confirms an argument that I've been making about the strange and wonderful racial culture of drag racing. All over the country, and even in the segregated South, drag racing has long been an oasis of racial tolerance.
My long-term documentary project, Democracy of Speed, explores the racial and gender cultures of drag racing. While the project concentrates on Eastside Dragway, in Waynesboro, Virginia, I've spent quite a bit of time at Sumerduck Dragway, the drag strip in the photo above, which is still very much in operation.
Oddly enough, It was a little bit of bigotry -- my own bigotry -- that got me into the project.
When I first went to a drag race, seven or eight years ago, I had a pretty good idea what I was going to find -- great photo ops and a bunch of dumb rednecks. I was right about the photos, but stunningly wrong about the people.
First of all, they're weren't dumb. It takes a fair amount of smarts to be a successful racer.
Second, the racers weren't rednecks, some of them were women, and a many of them were black. That's what drew me to the project -- easy, unselfconscious gender and racial integration in a place where I (and probably most people) least expected it, in a working-class Southern setting.
Over the years, I've made a lot of photos, conducted scores of interviews, and spent many hours pouring over old books, magazines, and newspapers trying to make sense of what I saw on that first day at the track. I've discovered that drag racing is unique among motor sports in the way that, from the very beginning, it has accepted and often welcomed women racers and racers of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds. You can read more of what I have to say on the subject, here, and see a gallery of my photos, here.
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Grey Villet's photo of the Lovings at Sumerduck Dragway eventually accompanied "The Crime of Being Married: A Virginia Couple Fights to Overturn an Old Law Against Miscegenation", which appeared in Life's 18 March 1966 edition. You can read it and see more of his photos, here. (At least you can if you're using Internet Explorer. It doesn't seem to be displaying on Firefox, at the moment.)
It's a small irony that Villet, a white man, was born and raised in South Africa, a nation that modeled its laws against racially mixed marriages on America's. Villet himself seems to have been a racial liberal. He left South Africa for New York City, when he was in his twenties. He soon found himself on the staff of Life, for which he sympathetically covered Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the crisis surrounding the integration of the schools, in Little Rock, Arkansas, among other major events. He even shot a story on drag racing, in Moline, Illinois, which was never published.
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Update: 30 January 2012. At the International Center of Photography's exhibition of the photos that Grey Villet made while working on the Loving's story, I learned that drag racing was even more important to Richard Loving that I originally thought. The drag strip wasn't just a refuge, a place where the Lovings could temporarily escape the pressures of being an interracial couple. Richard was, in fact, a successful drag racer. During the season that Grey Villet captured on film, he won over 38 trophies and over $5,000 in prize money, a significant sum in 1965. Loving co-owned his race car with two African-American friends, Raymond Green and Percy Fortune, reinforcing my sense that drag racing was an unexpected, but very real, zone of interracial tolerance.
Here's another photo of the Lovings at Sumerduck Dragway.
Another aspect of the story that became clear to me when I saw the photos at the exhibition is the contradictory role that social class played in the Loving's story. Both Richard and Mildred had grown up and remained working class. So had and were their friends. On the other hand, the local judge who sentenced them to prison, Leon M. Bazile, was a very wealthy man. Here's Villet's scathing take on the issue.
Grey Villet: [Leon M. Bazile in his living room.]
Finally, it's worth noting that the prints on display at the exhibition are vintage prints from Villet's estate. He seems to have made them himself. At the very least, they were made under his supervision. As you can see here, they're sepia-toned. It's an interesting choice. Perhaps Villet knew that he was working on a story of historical significance and chose sepia as a way to give the photos a timeless quality. My friend John Benette, the curator and writer, thinks that he used the sepia toning as a way of taking the photos out of ordinary time and space and of signaling a sense of romance. In doing this, he would have defused, to an extent, the anxieties that most Americans felt at the time about interracial marriage.