More American Photographs

On April 26th I went to the MCA Denver to see the show More American Photographs.  The show has over 100 photographs taken during the Depression Era, and works by twelve contemporary photographers.

The photographs from the Depression Era come from a program created by the FSA (Farm Security Administration) as a part of the New Deal.   From 1935-1944, about 40 photographers, hired by the FSA, documented the effects of the Great Depression on the American landscape and people.  These photographs were used as propaganda, in an effort to show that federal intervention was helping the American people.  Many of these photographs have become iconic and are the visual representation of the time in many peoples’ minds.  These photographs “also introduced a never-before-seen style of photographic realism—one that would radically alter the aesthetic of documentary photography,” or so the curator Jens Hoffmann says.  In this show, the works twelve of the photographers from the FSA were chosen to represent the entire project.

The works by the contemporary photographers were commissioned by CCA Wattis Institute.  These photographers were asked to create an updated version of the FSA project by documenting the American people and landscape, as they exist today, during what some are calling the “Great Recession.”

In my opinion, most of the photographs in both of the projects lack an artistic element.    Both the FSA and the new projects are documentary photography.  The older project’s aim was to document reality, not create art.  The new project is supposed to do the same thing, but in this case, the photographers’ commissions were intended for an art exhibition.  Knowing that they were supposed to create art, I have to say that overall, I am unimpressed by the display.  They essentially took the same approach as the FSA project and the only difference is that the subjects are contemporary.  Since they were supposed to be creating art, I would have liked to have seen some more innovative approaches to the assignment.  Some made better attempts than others to have a concept. One of the better attempts to do something different was by Collier Schorr.  She created collages that combine her photographs of young cowboys and photographs from Jacob Holdt’s series American Pictures.  This work is at least more visually interesting than the work by the other photographers.  However, Schorr’s work, along with all the others, fails to be truly successful as art.  By just looking at the photographs and not reading the text that explains their concepts, I do not think that any of them successfully convey what their statements say they are trying to do.  In that sense, they are failures because art should be able to convey its intended message without relying on text.

That being said, I believe that both projects say something important about the culture and the state of the nation at the time, but I am not sure either of them belongs in an art museum.  I think the more appropriate venue for them would be a magazine, newspaper, or history museum.  To me, the only person involved that has really made art is the curator.  By choosing to make the comparison between the two projects, the curator created a concept that allows the viewer to reflect and contemplate the similarities and the differences between the nation’s current financial situation, and the financial situation of the Great Depression.

2 Responses

  1. I also saw this exhibit, and while I certainly see the merit of your argument, I would categorize the majority of these photos as art. While they could also appear in a more historical context, such as a museum, I believe the emotions evoked in the viewer define these photos as artistic. While they may have served to document, they are very powerful images that create a response in the audience viewing them, and that internal response constitutes art. I loved this exhibit, and really enjoyed seeing America’s past through photography. I think the history of the photos contributes to my seeing them as art, as well, as the historical aspect of pieces generally adds to my appreciation for them.

  2. What an interesting exhibit, I will have to check it out. I love looking at old photographs. The role of photography in history is so important, and photograph as propaganda has a double purpose in history. Its is an actual account of the past, as well as a projection of what the government wanted people to see as the truth.

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