Exhibition Paper- “More American Photographs” at the Denver MCA

Samantha Gault

April 12, 2012

ARTH 3539

Art Exhibition Paper

For my final paper, I selected the art exhibition, More American Photographs, at the Denver Museum of Contemporary Art.  Although I have lived in Denver for over ten years, I am ashamed to admit that I have not visited the MCA since my seventh grade art class went there on a field trip.  As I rounded the corner on Delgany Street in the heart of the city, I walked into a long translucent tunnel that led to the entrance.  The heavy black door at the end of the hall slowly slid open, and I was instantly prepared to experience the exhibition.  This particular exhibition displays a variety of images taken for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) photography program from 1933-1944.  More recent pictures, prompted by the original works, were presented with these historical pieces.

In doing further research on More American Photographs, I learned a great deal about the history behind this collection.  The FSA originated as a part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, that had aims to “relieve, recover, and reform” American society during the Great Depression era.  About forty photographers were propositioned to document the impact, as well as bring light to the devastation, by seizing moments from everyday life.  Through the broad scale nature of these pictures—capturing wide ranges of subjects, environments, and situations—the FSA introduced a brand new style of photographic realism and documentation that depicted both beauty and struggle.  Over 250,000 photos were developed and collected through this program, and many have become American icons.  For example, the famous photograph, “Migrant Mother” (1936), by Dorothea Lange was among the pictures in the exhibition.  The primary purpose of this collection of original photos was the intent for it to be used as propaganda, in order to convince the American public that federal intervention had positive effects.  It articulated a national crisis and signified a country’s resistance in response to defeat.

More American Photographs includes artwork from twelve contemporary photographers who have captured the current state of a nation in a new era of crisis.  It encompasses a variety of scenarios, both rural and urban, and provides a voice for a diverse issues, including migration, gentrification, environmental negligence, and multiculturalism.  Through a combination of old and new images, this updated exhibition provides its audience with an inside look of American struggle, perseverance, and hope that endures over generations.

In terms of the exhibition space itself, the gallery offered a hallway and two adjacent rooms with high ceilings, large white walls for hanging the photographs in selected patterns, and floor-to-ceiling windows on the back walls.  Although the stark white walls held in an essence of timelessness and accentuated the idea of the lasting themes in this exhibition, the windows introduced the means for the present to enter the room and influence the way in which one viewed the pictures.  The space allowed me to not only reflect and compare the photos, but also to connect them to my personal experiences and state of mind.  The hallway leading into the exhibition presented several glass display cases, containing newspaper clippings from the years of the Great Depression, old cameras and lenses, and books filled with original collections of FSA program photographs.  Two FSA documentary films, prepared during the height of the Great Depression, were repeatedly played on a TV screen above these cases, contributing to the authenticity of the environment.

In terms of the new commissions of photographs presented in the More American Photographs exhibition, I personally found the works of Larry Clark, Katy Grannan, and Catherine Opie to be most significant.  Background information on Larry Clark denotes his contributions to be influenced by the theme of the American road trip.  Using this nostalgic element, Clark drove from Los Angeles to the desert art town of Marfa, Texas.  He focused on photographing two local skateboarders, Adam and Eric.  Clark’s space in this exhibition was comprised of eight photos that were casually thumb tacked in square patterns along the wall.  The picture to the far left was an artistic symbol of the town of Marfa.  It was an image of a concrete wall along a dry, dirt road adorned with blue and black graffiti proclaiming, “Punk Rock is Dead”.  Next to this photograph was a picture of a skateboarder named Adam, shot from the neck down, shirtless and sitting on a bench.  Adjacent to this was a picture of “Moses”, a rosy-cheeked baby with curly blond hair standing next to a large gray cat on a red picnic table.  His innocence was emphasized by his unknowing, cherubic expression.  Again there was Adam, illustrated through a close shot of his face against a bright red wall.  The shadows emitted from the setting sun highlighted his blemished complexion and apathetic expression.  Along with Adam’s photos are pictures of Eric, who, with closed eyes and tattoos referencing drug use, also appeared to be disinterested.  There was also a picture taken of what I assumed to be one of the boy’s rooms; video games, expired food, dirty clothes, and a stripped, stained mattress filled the floor space.  After researching the town of Marfa, I discovered that over twenty percent of the population is below the poverty line.  Larry Clark’s selection of photographs highlighted the skepticism of citizens living with limited means in a less-fortunate area in America today.  The vacant expressions of the boys provoked a sense of apathy and disbelief.  Personally, I viewed this series of photos to depict American youth in a sad light, as both a disinterested and unhopeful generation and as representations of a cynical future.

Another artist that caught my eye in the More American Photographs exhibition was Katy Grannan.  In order to complete her pieces in this project, Grannan followed the path of Dorothea Lange, traveling down Route 99 through several California towns.  Surprisingly, and unfortunately, these cities show little evolution or advancement since their documentation by Lange herself.  Grannan’s space included four large color portraits framed alongside one another in a rectangular and symmetrical fashion.  They are clearly depictions of Americans living on the streets or in extreme poverty.  The top-left picture showed a Caucasian man who was shirtless, covered in tattoos, and smoking a cigarette.  He was holding a small girl with blond hair in a swimsuit, which I assumed to be his daughter.  Both were staring into the distance and appeared to have concerned looks on their faces.  Next to this picture, was a large man of a disabled nature, delicately holding a tiny kitten.  The brochure noted that this photograph was a reference to the character of Lenny from John Steinbeck’s Great Depression-era novella, Of Mice and Men, and I could completely recognize this symbolism, even drawing comparisons to this before I had informed myself.  The photographs on the bottom showed a homeless Hispanic woman and a seemingly intoxicated Hispanic man.  Their characteristics of tangled hair, dirty faces, and distressed expressions highlighted their current situations.  All four of these photographs captured the consequences of current poverty and properly interpreted feelings of fear and despair attached to this state of crisis.  As an addition to these color portraits, Grannan accentuated her space with contrasting black-and-white landscapes of these towns.  I viewed these images to serve as polar opposites to the color photographs in physical terms, as well as provided a medium to enhance the illustration of the lives of the contemporary downtrodden in a visible way.

The third photographer that I focused my attention on was Catherine Opie.  She dedicated her work in More American Photographs to the owners of small shops in her hometown of southern Los Angeles.  She photographed five shop owners in their places of business.  Tavir, the owner of a gas station, stood with his arms forward, proud and strong, with a half smile on his face.  Claudia, a hairdresser, and Rita, a pupuseria, attempted to smile but looked weary and worn-down.  As the owner of a plumbing store, Bravo was the toughest of the bunch and held his fist on the counter while maintaining a stern expression.  Toan, a “water guy”, with his diseased eyes and slight smile, looked the most exhausted.  I viewed these portraits as snapshots of resilience.  The pictures of these shop owners, many of who appear to be immigrants or of foreign descent, symbolize the search for the American Dream through hard times, and depict the role that dedication and unfaltering perseverance play in the process.  Aesthetically, I found these photos to be the most appealing and captivating.  I felt as though I developed a true sense of the struggles, strife, and values of the people in these portraits.

Overall, I found the More American Photographs exhibition to convey a deep notion of the enduring quality of struggle and success in hard times.  Many of the new photo additions encompassed minorities, marginal groups, and foreigners, and allowed the audience to construct a more intimate relationship to those who suffer greatly in the current day and age.  I felt that, although one could easily contrast the photographs from the two time periods, their similarities were what made this exhibition so remarkable.  Throughout history and time, our nation has seen a great deal of crisis and struggle, and I believe that these photos help us to recognize that we, as American citizens and as human beings, are all connected through pain and suffering.  These elements of life know no sense of time and seem to prevail from generation to generation.  I thought that this exhibition accurately and appropriately depicted both the heartbreak and the strength in hardship.  Ultimately, I believe that More American Photographs constructed and reinforced the connection and the communication that exist in the midst of adversity.

(Used: Information provided by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver, CO; information provided by the MCA Denver website; “Inside the White Cube” by Brian O’Dougherty; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marfa,_Texas)




2 Responses

  1. Samantha, I found you paper to be very interesting and insightful. I specifically enjoyed the vivid descriptions as well as the historical background information provided. After reading your paper, I am curious to see the exhibition for myself as well! Overall, this is a very well done paper.

  2. I really enjoyed how you described walking into the building. This is something that I haven’t seen before in anyone’s papers, and this gave a very personal as well as visual feel to the paper, which is nice. Great job!

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