Exhibition Review

More American Photographs

            After a quick, 30 minute bus ride and a brisk five minute walk through the lively streets of Denver’s lower downtown, I was there, standing in front of the Museum of Contemporary Art for the first time. The building is a work of art in itself. It was designed by David Adjaye to minimize boundaries between the exterior cityscape and the interior spaces of the galleries. Almost entirely surfaced in glass, the surrounding buildings were reflected and once inside the visitor can see out and admire Denver in the Colorado sunshine. Natural light filtered in through hidden skylights. Once I finished admiring the architecture of MCA Denver, I directed my attention to the artwork displayed in the museum’s five galleries. On the first floor, More American Photographs was an exhibit that made a lasting impression on me.

More American Photographs presents a selection of photographs by the 1935-1944 Farm Security Administration (FSA) photography program alongside newly commissioned work inspired by the historical project. FSA was created as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal that hired photographers to document American life during the Great Depression. The contemporary work of twelve photographers offers an updated portrait of America in the wake of the current recession. This paper aims to describe my experience, wandering through the exhibit, to illustrate three specific works and to interpret them in context. These three works include the print, Untitled, Bakersfield, California, by Katy Grannan, a print from Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother Series, and lastly Stephen Shore’s, Lower East Side, NYC, July 11. There were many more pieces I would love to discuss but these will have to do. I advise everyone to take a trip to MCA Denver, so you can experience the images in person.

The first two images I want to talk about are works by Katy Grannan and Dorothea Lange.  I will analyze them in comparison to each another. Grannan traveled along California’s Route 99, following Lange’s path through towns such as Tulare, Modesto, Merced, Delano, Bakersfield, and Stockton. Her 2011 print Untitled was taken in Bakersfield, California. Untitled is a striking color print, a portrait of a father and daughter, which greatly resembles Destitute pea pickers in California, mother of seven children, age thirty-two, Nipomo, California, taken by Lange in 1936. The first difference that stands out is the scale and tone. As I mentioned earlier, Grannan’s photograph is in color and Lange’s is a black and white inkjet print from the Library of Congress archives. Untitled is a very large print, precisely 29 x 39 inches, whereas the Migrant Mother print is only 8 x 10 inches. Beyond the formal aesthetics there are some other subject matter differences worth mentioning.

Lange decided to portray a mother with her children. She centered the woman in the composition, because in my mind the strength of a mother during hard times is important to focus on. Two of her children lean on her, filling the frame, but we do not see their faces, as they look away from the camera, clinging on to their mother for comfort. In the contemporary version, Grannan chose to also center a man holding his daughter, and she too clings to his neck for support. We can see the little girl’s face but neither her nor her father look at the lens. They both stare off into the distance, searching for hope in what the observer can guess is a dire situation amidst desperate times. The fact that Grannan photographed a father with child in comparison to a mother with her children is telling of present day family mores. A woman’s role in early 20th century America was a domestic one. It was common for women to stay in the home and take care of the children. In today’s society it is not unusual for gender roles to reverse and the father stay home and care for his children. Also, the man’s ethnic background is not certain at first glance and neither is the woman’s in Lange’s piece. We only know the woman is an immigrant because of the series title. Regardless, America has always been a melting pot. Grannan’s depiction of a modern family in modern times still pulls at our heart strings, just as the melancholic black and white image taken almost a half a century later. In both photographs we can see the somewhat concerned but somewhat determined look on their faces. The California sun shines on the man’s face and this contrast between light and shadow reveals to me a beautiful story about suffering and perseverance. That is what made this exhibit so special, there were so many stories waiting to be told during the Great Depression and the FSA photographers brought them to the forefront and the same is true for the current financial downturn. The contemporary commissioned work captures both rural and urban situations and speaks to many issues of migration, gentrification, environmental negligence, and multiculturalism.

The third photograph I want to analyze is a color print titled Lower East Side, taken in NYC on July 11th. This photograph is an example of an image taken in an urban setting, captured to tell a story of gentrification. Stephen Shore is known for photographing the changing faces of the Lower East Side and the East Village in New York. He focuses on persistence of community during this massive change instead of the increasing disparity between the past and present. The subject of gentrification is captured in this piece without the presence of the people experiencing it.  Lower East Side is an image of the space where the cement sidewalk meets the foundation of the brick building. Where these manmade materials intersect green leaves emerge. The contrast between the small, flowering life form and the hard surfaces of the city reflects nature’s undying perseverance. Other than central park, nature is the minority in an artificial world. In relation to the issue of gentrification, the blossom could be a symbol for the working-class immigrant population. The small mom-and-pop stores have been chased away to make room for big industry, but in these changing times they continue to make a living, because the persistence of community will always find cracks in the system and succeed. This may be an overly optimistic interpretation of Shore’s photograph, however the combination of the old and new images in the exhibition could also be read as a hopeful sign that no matter how “Great” the depression, life goes on and we will find a way to survive. The fact that America is in recession almost a century after the Great Depression shows a cycle in our society similar to the cyclical patterns of the earth. The changes we face as human beings in American society for better or for worse are put on display in More American Photographs.

Overall I found this exhibit to be effective because I feel more informed after viewing it. The images derived from FSA photography program introduced a never-before-seen style of photographic realism and it was interesting to see how these photographs informed the aesthetic of documentary photography today. Even though two collections were created in different historical contexts, I found many similarities between works. I believe these similarities are rooted in the fact that we are all human and suffering is a shared experience and so is hopefulness.

Works Cited



3 Responses

  1. Very well written. You describe the pieces really well. I love how you compare Katy Grannan and Dorothea Lange, an interesting conjecture. I don’t think you need to describe the architecture though, even if you really liked it. I’m not sure I found it pertinent to your paper. I think you did a wonderful job other then that. Nice job!

  2. I like how you started out your paper it was a great grabber. You did a great job of drawing the reader in and presenting the pieces through good discriptions making it seem like I was there with you experiencing the same thing. I too went to this exhibit and found it a good contrast between the two time frams that it was depicting between the Great Depression and the Great Recession. I felt like you maybe could have done away with the description of the builiding as it draws away from your main point of your paper but overall I felt like it was a well writen and presented paper good job!

  3. Love the personal touch to the paper makes a great intro and a good review. The paper is well writen and nicely done. Also love the way you talk about the photos.

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