Exhibition Paper- Natalie Prescott

Natalie Prescott

Exhibition Paper

Due: 4/30/12

More American Photographs at the MCA Denver

            I visited the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver to see the More American Photographs exhibit. This exhibit brought back photos from the 1935-1944 FSA project to be exhibited alongside newly commissioned work that was inspired by the 20th Century project. The Farm Security Administration (FSA) was created as a part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal after the Great Depression to reveal to the world the “third of a nation”. This project was put in place to show what Roosevelt described as the “ill-housed, ill-clad, and ill-nourished” of America after the Great Depression. This was a political project that not only showed the “third of a nation” but also introduced the style of photography known as photographic realism. The FSA hired Roy Stryker to direct approximately forty photographers in their expeditions across the nation to photograph the people whose lives were hit the hardest by the Great Depression. He gave each photographer a “script” with specific things for each of them to photograph. Many of the images made in this historical project have become icons. Dorothea Lange photographed one of the iconic images from the series Migrant Mother during her time working for the FSA. The exhibit presents work from twelve of the approximately forty hired photographers for the FSA project. In the exhibit you will see work by Esther Bubley, Marjory Collins, Jack Delano, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, Carl Mydans, Gordon Parks, Arthur Rothstein, Ben Shahn, John Vachon, and Marion Post Wolcott. Walker Evans stopped working for the FSA in 1937 and went on to make a book called American Photographs of 87 black and white images documenting American life. This book served as the inspiration for the design and concept of More American Photographs. In 2011, the CCA Wattis Institute gave a similar assignment to twelve commissioned photographers: to document the American landscape and people during the “Great Recession”. Each photographer was given one of Stryker’s original “scripts” and was taught about his methodology behind them. In turn, the images produced by these photographers are unique and contemporary.

I took an especial liking to photographs by Ben Shahn, Arthur Rothstein, and Gordon Parks. Ben Shahn’s works were from his time in Arkansas in 1935 and Ohio in 1938. He photographed lonely inhabitants of Zinc, Arkansas and people picking cotton in Pulaski County. The image One of Few Remaining in Zinc, Arkansas stood out amongst the rest to me because it is a close up of an older gentlemen dressed fairly nicely with a hat on standing in front of what you could see as a pretty run-down porch on an old home. The photograph shows the expression of the man as obsolete as he gazes below the camera lens. Even though there could be a few people around him that are not shown in the image you can see the loneliness in his face and eyes. Arthur Rothstein’s Negro Road Gang, taken in Jefferson County, Alabama in 1937, stood out to me out of the four of his works exhibited. Maybe it was because of the striped jail suits the three men are wearing or because they seem to be struggling over an object that they were all wanting in the center of them. They face each other in a circular standing position while they wrestle over an object that is unknown to the viewer. This shows that times were so rough there was gangs of bandits on the roads and even those bandits were fighting amongst themselves for the very thing they had. Above all, my favorite photograph was New York, New Yorkby Gordan Parks taken in 1943. It is a portrait of a young Harlem newsboy standing in front of a sign that the viewer can see has ‘New York Journal and American’ printed on it. The boy has a smile that brings the viewers eye directly to him when looking at the four images by Parks positioned in a square on the wall. This image shows that there was still an innocence and brightness in people even after such depression and hard times. This could have been the image for the face of Roosevelt’s New Deal plan because it would inspire people that there was still hope after the Great Depression.

Gordan Parks

            I could not choose a favorite artist or image of those commissioned in the past year to photograph America during the “Great Recession”. I thought each artist’s images showed today’s majority of the American landscape realistically.Katy Grannan, one of the newly commissioned photographers, produced some beautiful color images. Following the path that Dorothea Lange had previously traveled, she photographed in towns all along California’s Route 99. Her color works are displayed on the wall with just the right light shining on the large archival pigment prints. She has four large portraits of people along her Route 99 travels. The print that directly correlates with Lange’s Migrant Mother is the one displayed in the top left corner of the display. The image is of a shirtless white man holding his daughter who wears a bathing suit while he holds a lit cigarette in one hand. They are both looking off to the right of the camera at something past Grannan’s stance. The top left image on display shows a disabled white man holding a small white kitten: his gaze intent on the kitten in his arms. The two bottom images are of people of non-white decent. The bottom left image shows a bottom angle close up of a homeless woman in Fresno who is looking into the distance with a puzzled facial expression while moving her hair with her hand. Displayed to her right is a profile view of a Hispanic male wearing a white tank top and looking off to the right of the camera. This is the only portrait displayed with a textured white background, the rest are all plain white backgrounds. These images show people while they are studying what is happening beyond the photographer’s camera. It leaves the viewer wondering what it is that they are all looking at.  These are accompanied by stark black-and-white landscapes taken along Route 99, which give texture to these somber scenes of contemporary life.

           Hank Willis Thomas displayed his images in a unique way to the exhibit. His series Strawberry Mansion is an accordion style display of 72 chromogenic prints attached to a museum board using Tyvek. Documented in Strawberry Mansion is an entire city block in north Philadelphia. Thomas’ grandparents were the third African-American family to move to the block in 1944. The neighborhood has since then gone through tremendous changes. Willis Thomas took a portrait of each house, in order, with members of the household assembled on the sidewalk. This allows a narrative to unfold about change. I enjoyed this originality of display in this series and the story that it takes the viewer through as the eyes travel along its path.

Hank Willis Thomas

          I loved the photographs by Catherine Opie. She adapted the assignment from Roy Stryker’s instruction “Looking Down My Street” by taking portraits of owners of small shops in South Los Angeles, where she lives. Each image shows an entrepreneur in his or her enterprise standing proud and embodying the pursuit of the American Dream. My favorite image from her collection is Bravo, which shows a man standing center behind the counter of his hardware store. The store has an array of tools hung on the wall behind him and various plumbing supplies hanging overhead. In front of him on the counter is a yellow sign that says ‘KEY MADE 92c & UP’. The store is an organized mess of all kinds of hardware supplies and he stands content right in the center of it all with the focus being completely on him and going out from him. The image has a unique beauty about it that is hard to describe but it shows the people who are at the heart of American and the “Great Recession”.

Catherine Opie

          The Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver is of unique architecture and made with windows surrounding the whole thing to ensure the allowance of natural light in to the artworks on display. The museum is a work of art in itself and provides a unique and enjoyable experience for the viewers. I thought Strawberry Mansion was displayed in a way that went along with the uniqueness of the museum.

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