Sarah Tye More American Photographs


Sarah Tye


Exhibition Paper



            For my exhibition paper, I went to Denver to see the show More American Photographs. I decided to go here because I had never been to the Denver Museum of Contemporary Art, or really any museum solely devoted to contemporary art. But I was surprised at how not contemporary this particular show is. So much so, that it was nearly a history lesson. More American Photographs focuses on American identity during times of extreme universal economic hardship. It documents American misery throughout the Great Depression, mixed with contemporary images providing a renewed insight of America in the wake of yet another economic crisis. SourceURL:file://localhost/Users/sarah/Downloads/More%20American%20Photographs.doc

The first part of the exhibition, presents an assortment of photos taken by the Farm Security Administration (FSA) from 1935-1944. This particular period of time has been crucial to the development and the agenda of our leaders in the United States to this day, although it was over fifty years ago. The 30’s and 40’s are typically characterized by the excruciating devastation that resulted from the Great Depression. It was a time of desperate need, and intense despair, as one crisis seemed to lead to the next. In both the rural and urban worlds, the general experience of the public was one of painful difficulty.

The universal struggle of a nation is what this particular exhibit aims to highlight. As explained in the statement that introduces the show to the audience, the FSA was commissioned by Frank Roosevelt as a part of his New Deal regime, which aimed to recover our nation from perhaps the most miserable time it had ever seen. FDR saw importance in publicizing the strife of the population, who during this time he described to be “ill-housed, ill-clad, and ill-nourished”(Hoffmann). In order to do so, the president oversaw the hire of forty photographers, and summoned them to the challenge of documenting the anguish of hard time. Under the lead of Roy Stryker, these photographers captured purely American images reflective of a sorrowful era.

The first attraction of the show is a film that is playing over and over at the introduction to the exhibit. The faint narration of the film can be heard, but not seen immediately upon entering the museum, evoking a near instant curiosity that allures the visitor almost directly to the exhibit. Following the voice around the corner, an old-school black and white film comes into view.

The film is the work of Pare Lorentz, a prolific documentary filmmaker commissioned by the government during the depression era. The film playing is either The Plow that Broke the Plains or The River; they alternate. Lorentz worked with the department of Agriculture to produce the films in 1936 and 1938, when he was named director of the United States Film Service by FDR. Both documentaries explore the causes and consequences of the infamous Dust Bowl and the deteriorating state of the Mississippi River. The Plow that Broke the Plains was playing when I visited. The film is a thorough investigation of the Dust Bowl, and is very informative but still comes across as a work of art. The Dust Bowl was a period of about eight years of dust continuously blowing into the Southern Plains, a “yellowish-brown haze” that resulted in “the simplest acts of life, breathing, eating a meal, taking a walk—no longer simple”(Nelson). The video concludes that the negligence of farmers and the poor agricultural systems during times of drought is what ultimately lead to this disaster.

I know the video is meant to be informative, but to me it sent a message that the Dust Bowl was a direct consequence of American greed. It is an educational video commissioned by the government, but there is a passive aggressiveness there that implies that the people who suffered from the Dust Bowl that lengthened the depression, suffered because it was their fault it happened in the first place. In the River, the other Lorentz film at the exhibit, I again get this sense of passive aggressive blame. It is also narrated to inform, however the film describes the river as “the tragedy of land twice impoverished, first by war, then by reckless development and the ongoing attempts to harness the rivers power”(Hoffmann). It is clear, probably more today than it was back then that human beings damage the Earth. And, obviously this film was commissioned to help the problem instead of making it worse. However, this was also obviously a time when American people needed to be less discouraged, not more. The information is undoubtedly true, but the film also seems to hand out some guilt. It is interesting.

The wall adjacent to the screen playing the films, is filled with information. It is basically a lesson plan on the historical context of the videos and the older photographs. It was interesting to read after I spent so much time watching the films. However, there was a whole wall of information, and so much more to see. On the rest of the wall, and the wall opposite it, there is a vast selection of photographs. Some of the photographs are black and white inkjet images from the 1930s, some are colorful still-lifes of fast food taken last year, some are houses, some are figures and faces both happy and sad. At first glance, the only common denominator I saw was simply just “America.” I guess after watching the video and reading a little of the context, my expectation for the rest of the show was that it was going to be rather dark and depressing. But, there were a variety of images just in the first room whose relation to one another is not immediately obvious. The viewer has to consider the whole room.

The commonality between the images that adorn the walls is that they all take place in the wake of economic crisis. Although some of these pictures seem just to be candid shots of people doing everyday things, once the viewer remembers what they are looking it, it changes the whole perception of each piece.  There was one piece I was particularly drawn to in this room. It is a Roe Etheridge photograph of a house entitled SE Glade Street, Belle Glade, Florida. When I first saw it I was sure it was from the 1930s or 40s, but when I read the caption, it was actually taken in 2011. This particular piece is very successful to the collection. It is clearly a house that was built probably in or around the 1930s. It’s white paint and wood paneled exterior is typical of the average American home. In its heyday, this house would have most likely been considered at the very least, nice. But, in this photograph taken in 2011, the paint is chipped; the white wood panels have been tired out, stained with time. The windows are open, but none of the inside of the house is visible—they open to just black. The picture evokes an uneasy feeling, as if the house is haunted or abandoned. The theme of financial struggle and misery furthers this feeling. And, although the picture was taken in 2011, the house itself seems to fit into another era. It was my favorite piece in the entire exhibit.

There are two more rooms; the room to the left of the statement room is much smaller. Walking in the visitor immediately sees this truly fantastic piece by Hank Willis Thomas of 72 digital chromogenic prints compiled together in a sort of accordion panorama. It is entitled Strawberry Mansion, and was shot in 2011. What it is, is a city block, each picture a different building. After each building, there is a fold that creates a zigzag composition in which different buildings are visible or not visible if viewed from different angles. It is clearly supposed to be the highlight of the room. However, on the opposite wall from the room is a series of 5 photographs by Cathy Opie that I found myself a little more drawn to. Cathy Opie is famous in the contemporary art world for her portrait photographs with the word pervert engraved on her, or her subjects skin. The portraits here are simply five photographs of typical American average Joes. It was slightly strange how conservative these pictures were for a Cathy Opie series.  They were titled simply by the subjects first name, and in parentheses their occupation. None of them have very profitable work positions, and with the current economic crisis, one can guess that they all face financial stress. Yet, they all have this half-hearted, almost heartbreaking smile on their faces, as if there is some small lingering glimpse of hope.

The final room was the largest, and had the most pictures, but it was the least cohesive. I did not enjoy it as much as the rest of the exhibit; it just did not seem as organized. Most of the room is of portraits. Mostly of men (or boys) actually. There were series of photographic portraits of boys from 2011 next to a series of pictures from the ‘30s or ‘40s. The portraits’ gazes are directed right at the camera, as a result they appear to stare right back at the audience who came to stare at them. Remembering that these pictures are all taken in times of struggle, an empathy is immediately created between the audience and the subject. There is something about the eye contact that makes it easier to feel something for these subjects. The room is littered with images both old and new of people, neighborhoods and landscapes. And actually, all of the portraits in the room are immigrants or minorities, except for a few black and white photos of  cowboys from an earlier era. I take the prevalence of immigrants in this room to reflect the American dream, which is probably why they imigrated here. It is the ill-hearted and dim expressions of most of the subjects that remind the viewer that this ‘American dream’ realistically does not exist during nation-wide times of economic distress. Ultimately, during these times of depression or recession, everything can be lost.

Overall, I enjoyed the show so much more than I thought I would. I have always tended to avoid photography shows; I am not sure why I just never found it as interesting or expressive as other forms of art. I came because I love history and although I do think this show was a little more of a history lesson than anything else, that is why I loved it. There were a very wide variety of photographs that I initially had a difficult time finding relationships that linked this image to the next. But, I think the overall theme of misery was the most important. Misery results in times of loss, and times of nation-wide economic downturn, loss can be overwhelming. Still, not all of the images were miserable, some were very happy. These pieces were symbolic of the lingering need to hope for recovery and regain of loss, a heartbreaking yet optimistic trait of Americans nationwide.




Nelson, Cary. “About The Dust Bowl.” Welcome to English « Department of English, College of LAS, University of Illinois. University of Illinois. Web. 30 Apr. 2012. <;.


Hoffmann, Jens. “More American Photographs / MCA Denver.” MCA Denver. Web. 30 Apr. 2012. <;.









One Response

  1. It was interesting to read your interpretation of this show. I attended the same show at the MCA and felt many of the same reactions to it. The feelings of uneasiness, empathy, and sorrow definitely dominated for me, but I agree that there was some sense of hope and determination, which is necessary in times of economic crisis. Your review of the show was much more matter-of-fact and historically based than mine was, which presented an interesting balance to the way I viewed the show. I definitely appreciate your approach in this review. While I discussed the aesthetics of just a few of the pieces thoroughly, I thought your overall approach and historically based overview was very successful! Nice work

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