Show Review- More American Photographs (Mary Robbins)

Mary Robbins

Show Review 2

MCA More American Photographs

The current exhibition at the Denver Museum of Contemporary Art titled More American Photographs features work from a number of high profile photographers that worked through the 1930s and 1940s for the Farm Security Administration (FSA). These well-known photographs are presented in relation to the work of twelve contemporary photographers, whose work deals with present-day societal issues in America. This strategy of presentation highlights the similarities in condition found between the lower-class populations in America living through the Great Depression and those struggling in the wake of the Great Recession in America today. While the images are strikingly similar in many cases, it is also interesting to note how photography has changed over the years, in terms of subject, context, technique and process. The show presents an interesting and meaningful collection of works dealing with tensions and troubles that are often hidden, but always present in American society.


I was very interested in the contemporary photographs dealing with an array of issues in America. Many of these photographs were presented without explanation, leaving the viewer to come up with his or her own interpretation of the people and places photographed, the histories behind these subjects, and the problems that these people face. Throughout the exhibit were photographs of immigrants, drug-addicts, and dispossessed strangers. There were images of deserted lots and buildings, with no signs of life; and images of people who appeared stuck in their positions, whether shown working in convenient stores and run-down restaurants, or close-up and cropped, without any contextual background. Each of these photos looks somewhat sad and depressive: the situations seem hopeless and the people seem lost. What was strange about some of these images was the way in which contemporary colored photography was employed not to brighten the scene, but to bring the trials and tribulations an even more tangible presence. It was an odd feeling, seeing the very real struggles of the individuals depicted in such a matter-of-fact way. The older FSA photographs, while real and intense and full of emotion, seemed distanced by their black and white presentation; they were somehow set apart from my reality. But the colors in the contemporary photographs made the struggles seem too close for comfort.


When I entered the exhibition, some of the first photographs that I saw were a series of untitled portraits by Katy Grannan. Grannan is a contemporary photographer whose most recent series, titled “Boulevard,” presents anonymous strangers who seem dispossessed, impoverished, or weathered by the difficulties of life in the West. Her subjects are photographed in the harsh mid-day sun, in front of bright white stucco walls, somewhat reminiscent of Richard Avedon’s portraits set against white backgrounds, giving no environmental context. With this choice of stark presentation, the strangers that Grannan photographs, who already appear worn-for-wear, seem even more vulnerable and disheartened.


As Grannan’s photographs were some of the first that I saw, I was struck by the similarities that resonated in me between her untitled portraits and some of the better-known FSA photographs that I’ve studied in art history classes. The first thing I noticed was the parallel that jumped out at me between an untitled portrait of a (presumably) immigrant woman and the iconic “Migrant Mother” image taken by Dorothea Lange in 1936, which was also featured in the show. The untitled image by Grannan presented a very tan woman who was probably a Mexican or Latin American immigrant; by the photograph, it is difficult to tell her age as she squints in the harsh sunlight, but I would guess that she is probably in her mid 40’s. By the wrinkles on her forehead and color of her skin, she seems to have had a long life of perilous work in the sun, without much relief or compensation. She looks anxious and distressed, as her face is turned and her sad, tired eyes look off into the distance for something unknown to the viewer. She seems to be longing for something, or waiting for some answer of relief that might only be found in a distant, hopeful, better life.


What most reminded me of Lange’s “Migrant Mother” image about the unknown woman’s portrait were her weathered skin, distant gaze, and her hand lifted to her face. The classic triangular portrait presentation, and the similarly raised hand by the women’s faces, made me automatically associate these two works with each other. Both women stare pensively into the distance. They are both strangers to the photographers and the viewers; we don’t know their stories, but we can relate to their troubles, whatever they may be.


Another of Grannan’s untitled portraits, placed directly above the portrait of the immigrant woman, also reminded me of Lange’s “Migrant Mother” photograph. The contemporary portrait by Grannan shows a man and his daughter in an embrace marked by uncertainty. The young girl looks scared, while her father—though perhaps not in complete control—exhibits the determination and perseverance needed in order to provide for his family. This photograph is very much like Lange’s “Migrant Mother” in the sense that a single parent is shown as the provider and caregiver for the family. Both the man in Grannan’s portrait and the woman in Lange’s look forward with uncertain determination, and embrace their children with a love that seems tougher than that of parents who have security. The children in these two photographs exhibit different sentiments. The daughter in Grannan’s portrait looks out into the distance with a nervous gaze. The wind blows her hair into her face, which gives an uneasy feeling, and is also reminiscent of the FSA images of the dust bowl. The children in Lange’s portrait burrow their faces into their mother’s body, shying away from the photographer and seeking comfort in their strong mother. Although the children’s expressions are different, in both photographs they exhibit a distinct dependence on their courageous, but weary parents.


There are many other emotionally charged photographs throughout the show. Some deal with racial, economic, and social issues of the past, and some deal with issues that are surprisingly similar in today’s America. The entire show brings a sense of discontent to the viewer, caused by the fact that so many people in America are still struggling from the same types of troubles that were present 60-70 years ago. The old FSA photographs and the contemporary photographs play off each other in a moving way. They build off of the photographs that are surrounding them, with each photo gaining intensity as the viewer moves through the show. The ghostly images of the past are given new life when placed next to contemporary photographs, and the contemporary photographs gain more importance and meaning when viewed in the context of the FSA photographs. The presentation was moving and meaningful, and the curatorial concept resonated strongly with me. I would recommend this show to anyone interested in photography, in the social/ cultural issues in America, or in seeing some very important historical works alongside the work of new photographers who are gaining precedence in the contemporary art world.




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