Photo exhibit reimagines modernity in 1930s
Bourke-White’s “World’s Highest Standard of Living” questions the notion of American idealism.
The 1930s in America was a time of vast socio-economic change, a phenomenon which photographers of the time strove to capture. The Colby Museum of Art exhibit “American Modern” weaves together the images of Berenice Abbott, Walker Evans and Margaret Bourke-White and emphasizes their documentary styles during this time period.
The exhibit presents three rooms of photos, many with in-depth descriptive placards, flooding visitors with words and numbers, as if to emphasize the images foremost as documentary, rather than as works of art. But what holds more interest than the explanatory paragraphs and their facts is the way “documentary photography” has so many different manifestations within the exhibit. Abbott, Evans and Bourke-White all photographed the Great Depression in different locales and in very different styles.
Many prints from Abbott’s collection “Changing New York” are incorporated into “America Modern,” in which she documents the rise of skyscrapers and other larger-than-life metal structures in New York City. Her angles are dizzying at times, as in “Canyon, Broadway and Exchange Place,” where she turns the camera toward the sky, which is blocked out almost entirely by the towering figures of three looming skyscrapers. They seem about ready to collapse upon the viewer.
Abbott captures these new grandiose structures with a kind of terror and awe and then she juxtaposes it with subtle hints of the other half. In “Construction Old and New,” we see a majestic New York skyscraper rising up behind one of its poor tenement cousins. Images like this one really invoke the contrast between the country’s high ambitions and harsh realities in the 1930s.
Bourke-White’s famous image “World’s Highest Standard of Living” neatly embodies this contrast with its juxtaposition of a billboard extolling the world’s highest standard of living—a smiling white family with two children and a dog, motoring through the countryside—and a line of African Americans outside a nearby Red Cross flood-relief station. Bourke-White highlights this contrast with an irony and sardonic wit that is absent in Abbott’s images, though they highlight the same contrast between ambition and actuality in America.
Walker Evans’ approach is quite different, taking on the documentary quality of being “simple and direct,” as the placards point out (though, funnily, Evans wanted his images to speak for themselves without captioning or commentary—he developed the concept of the “photo essay”). His style sets him apart at a glance with his straight-on portraits of southern poverty.
Evans went into homes and photographed poor families, whether posed together or by themselves, as they stared straight out at the camera. His series of Bud Fields, an impoverished farmer from Alabama, and his family is represented in “American Modern” by two photos, one of which depicts Bud with his wife, her mother and their infant child. The mother stands behind the sitting couple and her head is cut out of the frame. “It seems as though they’re cut off from the mainstream,” museum docent Liz Geller said, interpreting Evans’ framing choice. Evans’ photos show a much more desperate and destitute side of the Depression era. He doesn’t distance himself from his subjects, but gets in close and has them look right at you. Poverty here is a distinct reality.
The Museum’s Art and Faith lecture series used “American Modern” as a jumping-off point for Reverend Paul Nielsen of the Lutheran Church of the Resurrection in Waterville to discuss the changing attitude toward poverty in Martin Luther’s time. Using a PowerPoint presentation to aid his discussion, Nielsen incorporated photos from the exhibit into his slides.
His discussion, “The Effect of Luther and the Reformation on Medieval Poverty,” focused mainly on the contrast between the different approaches toward aiding the poor in the Medieval and Reformation periods. While the church controlled the distribution of alms to the poor in medieval times, essentially selling salvation to the rich in exchange for their charity, Luther sought to rectify this ineffective “alms for penance” trade off.
Luther tried to clarify the acquisition of penance in his belief that salvation should not be sold; faith earns one salvation and love for one’s neighbor alone should incite charity. On this slide in the presentation, Nielsen put one of Evans’ Bud Fields photos, as if to say, “This is the neighbor that needs care.”
In the medieval period, just as in the Depression, just as now, the faces of the poor are seldom seen by the wealthy. In “American Modern,” they are brought to our attention in a way that cannot be ignored. Bud Fields and his family stare out at the viewer, “making us look into their faces and see them as we see ourselves,” Mirken Curator of Education Lauren Lessing said.