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Bancroft Library adds photo archives of Michelle Vignes

Vignes photo The Vignes View, Flash slide show

– The Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley, has acquired the archives of photographer Michelle Vignes, who documented Native Americans' 1969-71 occupation of Alcatraz Island, the American Indian Movement and other major social movements of the last half-century.

French-born Vignes, who is 77, was on hand to photograph American Indian Movement events such as the longest walk, the longest run, a ceremony for reburial of the spirits, and its occupation in 1973 of Wounded Knee, site of the 1890 clash between Native Americans and federal troops.

On the scene at the Monterey Jazz Festival, the Altamont rock concert, and the "Human Be-In" in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, Vignes documented Vietnam War protesters burning draft cards as part of a series on the San Francisco Bay Area's draft induction centers. She also photographed daily life in Mexican pueblos, a truck stop and Oakland's vibrant blues scene.

Her latest project, started 10 years ago, involves photographing gospel singers and the congregations of small neighborhood and storefront churches.

Vignes' acclaimed black-and-white photos have appeared in publications around the world, including Time, Life, Vogue, Ramparts, l'Express and Newsweek.

Jack von Euw, The Bancroft Library's pictorial curator, said the library is pleased to receive Vignes' field notes, her negatives and prints of just about everything she ever photographed.

"She opens doors to aspects of life that most of us would never have access to," said von Euw. "She really has a fantastic eye and gives you a look at something you won't find in the mainstream press. It's not the paparazzi version of documentary photography."

Von Euw said Vignes' photographs are so compelling because she considers it vital to her art to spend a great deal of time - sometimes many years - with her subjects. For example, she photographed the founding of the American Indian Movement and followed it for almost 25 years.

About 90 percent of Vignes' extensive archives is coming to UC Berkeley, which Vignes called a "perfect" home for her materials because both she and the campus have a deep interest in Native American culture.

UC Berkeley has a Native American Studies program, and its Linguistics Department hosts a "Breath of Life" conference every two years to help save the nearly extinct languages of California's Native Americans. In addition, its Hearst Museum of Anthropology boasts a research collection of approximately 9,000 California Indian baskets, representing every tribe in California and every basket weaving technique.

Von Euw said the Vignes collection will likely be used by students and scholars in research relating to photography and journalism, art, social justice and customs, African Americans, politics, history, gender and law.

The value of her work to scholars with interest in cultural and social history as it unfolded in Northern California over the last 40 years is why her work is such a significant addition to The Bancroft and its core collection of Western Americana, Von Euw said.

Ken Light, head of the photography program at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism and curator of its Center for Photography, called Vignes' work "an important and rare photographic record representing a period in Bay Area history, a time when cultures clashed, communities were empowered, and great social discourse and upheaval took place."

Vignes was present at many of these events "with her keen eye, and sense of social justice, informed by her years of work at Magnum Photos, the legendary photo agency where she worked as a picture editor with Henri Cartier-Bresson," he said.

"She also had a deep, heartfelt interest in telling stories of what she saw in her own style, informed by her being away from her homeland, France," Light said.

She threw herself into the freelance life and worked for many of the large U.S. magazines of the day, Light said, recording an important period in American history that was "wonderfully informed by her lyrical sense and use of the camera."

The Vignes archive complements UC Berkeley's existing library archives on the Free Speech Movement, the Social Protest and Environmental collections and other important social movements, while also filling a significant gap, Von Euw said.

"Our (The Bancroft's) collection is excellent up to right after World War II," von Euw said. "We have a real gap in the last 50 years, so that's what we're really trying to build up."

Peter Selz, a professor emeritus from UC Berkeley's Department of Art History who is working on a book about political art in California from World War II to the present, will include some of Vignes' photographs of the 1960s counterculture and the American Indian Movement's occupation of Alcatraz. He called the Vignes archive "extremely valuable as photo documentation of high artistic quality."

Vignes studied philosophy before working with Cartier-Bresson at Magnum Photos, established in 1947 to give photographers the freedom to work outside the constraints of commercial journalism. She later became a picture editor at the Paris headquarters of the United Nation's Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). She moved to San Francisco in 1966.

She recently received the Oakland Museum of California's Dorothea Lange Award for distinguished work by a woman photographer. In 1999, she was awarded the Order of the Arts & Lettres given by the French Ministry of Culture. In 2002, Vignes' photographs of the American Indian Movement were exhibited in France.

A monograph of her photographs, with an essay by former American Indian Movement leader Dennis Banks, was published in conjunction with her exhibition in Paris.