Ohio Center for Decorative Arts draws correlations between 1930s and 1940s WPA photography and pandemic photography in ‘Chronicles’ exhibit


Ohio Center for Decorative Arts draws correlations between 1930s and 1940s WPA photography and pandemic photography in ‘Chronicles’ exhibit

By: Emily Votaw

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Until August 28, the Ohio Center for the Decorative Arts in Lancaster features photographs taken decades apart by Americans living in a country in disarray in an exhibit titled “Chronicles: The Great Depression and the Pandemic.”

In the 1930s, when America was still reeling from the impact of the 1929 stock market crash, a sub-agency of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Projects Administration.

America was in economic and social distress following the stock market crash of 1929 and the rural destruction caused by the Dust Bowl. Amid the rebuilding of the country carried out by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Projects Administration, a sub-agency of the WPA, the Farm Security Administration, commissioned a group of photographers to document the work being done to relieve the hardest corners poor in the country.

Although they had no way of knowing it at the time, these photographers would not only document the progress of the agency they worked for, but they would also produce some of our country’s most iconic images ever taken. “Chronicles” includes the work of 10 of these photographers.

Left, “Near Childress, Texas, June 1938” by Dorothea Lange and right, “Emily: RN, Emergency Department, March, 2020” by Autumn Bland on display as part of the Center for Decorative Arts‘ “Chronicles” exhibit from Ohio. (Emily Votaw/WOUB)

In 2022, America is in a state of economic and social distress following the many repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic, which may have started in late 2019, but is still a part of daily life. “Chronicles” features photographs taken by five Ohio-based photographers during the first two years of the pandemic, documenting the myriad ways in which life continues (or does not) in the context of the contemporary moment.

“Chronicles” was curated by Arnold Tunstall, Director of University Galleries at the University of Akron, and Dr. Christine Fowler Shearer, President and CEO of Fowler Artistic. Work on the exhibit began years ago, around the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Road to Progress” and “Exercise in Contradiction” by Donald Black, Jr. (Emily Votaw/WOUB)

“As a curator, I was talking to living artists who react in the moment and hear from them their fear and their frustration, and their angst about how to respond to our prompt, which was ‘Hey, document the pandemic and look at the FSA photographers and respond to those, Tunstall said. “It’s intimidating to create or react to something in the moment. And that’s what I really take away from it, an immense admiration for these photographers that they were able to create and create very beautiful works and respond to our request.

One component of the resonance between the sets of photographs comes from the fact that the way the WPA photographers documented their country had a lasting impact on how Americans, including the contemporary photographers featured in the exhibit, view themselves. perceive.

“What’s amazing about this exhibit is that this way of representing Americans or the American place really started with the WPA. These photographers were hired to provide information to the government and to show where the problems were in rural America, to show the poverty, the lack of jobs, but also to show the successes – like building urban environments “said Tunstall. “And in doing so, they were photographing in a way that heroized the American worker and showed empathy for the unemployed and those who worked on the farms. That style really became the American documentary style, and these contemporary photographers reflect still like this style and use it themselves today for the same reasons.

“Cover Your Mouth” by Shane Wynn. (Emily Votaw/WOUB)

Just as FSA photographers set out to document places in America so profound that many had never been seen by the general public, the contemporary photographers highlighted by the exhibition also turned their gaze to aspects of the American experience that many were unaware of.

“This idea of ​​heroizing the worker, the farmer, is so American to me,” Fowler Shearer said. “The interesting correlation between these photographs and those of today is this idea of ​​this essential worker, that they are needed. And they were the ones who had to step in while everyone had to stay at home. These photos aim to give them credit for what they have done.

Listen to WOUB’s full interview with Tunstall and Fowler Shearer, embedded above in the Soundcloud window.

“Chronicles: The Great Depression and the Pandemic” is on display at the Ohio Center for the Decorative Arts through August 28. The Ohio Center for Decorative Arts is open Wednesday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. at the Ohio Center for the Decorative Arts is always free.


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