BIRMINGHAM — Never-before-seen photos taken at a 1979 Ku Klux Klan rally by University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) Professor Sonja Rieger, M.F.A., will be on show Jan. 11-Feb. 22, 2013, at Beta Pictoris Gallery.
Rieger had just moved from New Jersey to begin teaching at UAB when she saw a sign advertising a Klan rally in Gardendale, and she decided to shoot it. Rieger is professor of photography in the UAB Department of Art and Art History.
“My eyes were wide open — I moved to a place in the United States that felt like another country,” Rieger said of the time.
The photographs are now finally being shown because she was able to print the large images herself. The timing of the show at the start of Birmingham’s observance of the 50th anniversary of the seminal events of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement is serendipitous.
Rieger had access to the Klan rally because she was white, and she said she probably would not have been there if her parents had not been involved in civil rights activities. As a child, she saw Ralph Abernathy speak in Massachusetts with her mother, who also attended the 1963 March on Washington.
A friend who accompanied her to the Gardendale rally was too frightened to stay, because the Klan members were armed with shotguns. They were dressed in full regalia — even the children who were eating vanilla ice cream cones.
“I would not say I am humanizing the Klan, but I am putting the whole experience of it — every little detail — out there for the viewer.” Rieger said of the works. “I am trying to present a deeper view. That rally had an indelible impact on me; it could not be erased. I think a sense of that is in the photographs at this scale.”