Saturday, June 4, 2016

They're not Kidding about the Lack of Mountains

Where: Smithsonian American Art Museum

When: through July 31, 2016

In the 1970s, the National Endowment for the Arts paid for three photographers to go to Kansas and record life there, much as the Farm Security Administration had done throughout the country in the 1930s and 1940s.  This exhibit features over 60 of the images produced as part of the Kansas Documentary Survey, which focused on landscape, buildings and people.

I looked at the landscape images first, and realized very quickly that the show's title is well deserved.  The photograph here is typical - the sense that the land and sky go on forever, with nothing to break up the view.  It's not that the pictures are necessarily bleak; it's that they are vast and unchanging.  There are no boundaries; they are pictures of infinity.

The second room contains photographs of people, and the thing that struck me is how much they are fully present with each other.  There are no phones (of course, since this is 1974) or any other distractions.  You have the sense that people have gathered together to enjoy one another's company, and that they will turn back to their coffee, or board games or conversation as soon as the photographer has left.  In part, this is because it is 1974, and portable private entertainment has yet to be invented, but I think it's also partly a reaction to the landscape in which they live.  With so much space outside, I imagine these people coming together for human companionship - to band together against the void.

Finally, I went into the room of buildings, which are almost as empty as the landscape.  There are signs in the windows, so you can assume that these are businesses with owners, employees, customers, but we don't see these people.  Perhaps they're all at the coffee shop having their pictures taken by another photographer?

Verdict: Good show, easily managed in a lunch hour.  Especially recommended for those with an interest in photography, or the history of the Midwest. 

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