See renowned Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographs, taken between 1934 and 1944, juxtaposed with newly commissioned photographs of 21st-century America by 12 contemporary photographers.
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the FSA employed photographers including Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and Gordon Parks to travel throughout the country, documenting the “third of a nation” that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt defined as “ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.” More than 80 years later, this project sent renowned contemporary photographers, including Catherine Opie, Sharon Lockhart, and Walead Beshty, across America to document the nation as we know it today.
The result is a visually engaging, emotionally provocative exhibition that offers us new insights into America past and present: the changing face of the nation, our floundering and flourishing communities, and our people’s unceasing determination to persevere. The exhibition features more than 120 works: nearly 50 FSA photographs and over 70 images produced in 2011. Select FSA archival materials, cameras, and two documentaries are also on view.
The 12 contemporary artists featured in the exhibition are Walead Beshty, Larry Clark, Roe Ethridge, Katy Grannan, William E. Jones, Sharon Lockhart, Catherine Opie, Martha Rosler, Collier Schorr, Stephen Shore, Alec Soth, and Hank Willis Thomas. FSA photographers whose works are represented are Esther Bubley, Marjory Collins, Jack Delano, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, Carl Mydans, Gordon Parks, Marion Post Wolcott, Arthur Rothstein, Ben Shahn, and John Vachon.
Roy Stryker, the director of the FSA, provided the FSA photographers with detailed instructions for capturing a comprehensive portrait of America and Americans. The images this government-sponsored program produced offer an invaluable historical record of American life during the 1930s. In addition, many of the FSA photographs (such as the Dorothea Lange’s image popularly known as Migrant Mother) have become widely recognized emotional icons of period. Exhibition curator Jens Hoffman, of the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts in San Francisco, revisited Stryker’s approach to brief the contemporary photographers charged with recording the United States as the country struggled to emerge from its most significant economic downturn since the Great Depression.
The exhibition brings these new commissions, such as Grannan’s stirring untitled portrait of a father embracing his young daughter (2011) and Beshty’s dynamic abstract photographs created by sending unprotected exposed film through airport X-ray machines, together with famed and less familiar WPA images. The title More American Photographs references Walker Evans’s renowned book American Photographs, which was first published by the Museum of Modern Art to accompany an exhibition of his photographs there in 1938.