The typed, reductive and misspelt caption, BLACK PANTHER HEADQUARTES, CHICAGO AFTER SHOOTING JULY 1969 that identifies a photograph of a smashed typewriter is one of the few traces of an event that wasn’t photographed. This was after the event, not the event itself, when on Thursday 31 July 1969 the Chicago police, on a routine patrol, stopped and questioned two men carrying shotguns from out of the Black Panther West Side headquarters. The men ran into the building and back-up called to smash in the front door and scale the rear of the building on ladders. Five officers and three Panthers were wounded in the ensuing volley of gunfire.
The Panthers subsequently alleged money was taken ($500 in cash) and office equipment targeted. The featured typewriter has its keys popping from their sockets, is dusted with debris and balanced on a slew of darkly stained manuscripts. We can’t be certain from a black and white image but the smears are most probably blood. The polemical text of the papers is partly visible within the crop, “Pig Jones is an enemy of the people… sick, murderous bastard… he doesn’t kill again.” This most likely refers to the police shooting of one of the ‘Brothers’ in the escalating war between the authorities and the increasingly militant Black Power Movement. Six months later the activist Fred Hampton was killed while sleeping in his apartment during a joint Chicago Police and FBI raid.
The photographer from the Chicago Sun-Times was probably unaware of a similar photograph, Remington Silent (1940), made by Lee Miller during the Blitz on London. Miller’s image of a twisted and distorted machine marries her surrealist sensibility to her growing instinct for the newsworthy, pinning down the German mission to destroy Britain’s infra-structure to the specific detail of office equipment. Two editorial photographs, thirty years apart do not make a trope, although the evidence of the bureaucracy of conflict in apparently anodyne office spaces is the very stuff of Thomas Demand.
I searched to identify the Panthers’ s typewriter trawling through Underwoods, IBMs and Olivetti’s before fixing it as a mid 1960s Smith Corona. As the images of the machines I examined were all items for sale on the internet’s multiple shopping channels the thought occurred that my interest might have triggered a small electronic alarm on the state’s now panoptic surveillance apparatus. Manual typewriters are most probably classified alongside, timers and fertiliser as purchases to be watched out for. As I’m neither an elderly and wistfully nostalgic luddite nor a twenty something, art school, digital refusenik, what then is my interest? What do I have to hide?
Edward Snowden has peeled back the onion skin to reveal a world in which, if not every breath you take then at least every keystroke you make has someone watching over you. The Russian Government has reportedly issued typewriters to all its embassies. The actions of the Chicago Police reveal that then, as now, the manual typewriter was the machine of choice for enemies of the state.
Roger Hargreaves curates the press collection of the Archive of Modern Conflict and the press photography section of the Photocaptionist. A lecturer, writer and curator, past awards include the Kraszna-Krausz Foundation Book Award and the Maine Golden Light Award for writing on photography. In another life he would have enjoyed being a paparazzo in Fellini’s Rome.