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'More American Photographs' offers a glimpse of America's recession

March 10, 2012 |  8:00 am

In the 1930s and '40s, the federal Farm Security Administration ran a photography program headed by Roy E. Stryker to document the plight of rural farm workers affected by the Great Depression. It launched the careers of many extraordinary photographers, including Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and Gordon Parks.

Inspired by the mission of this program, curator Jens Hoffmann incorporated those classic images alongside newly commissioned works from contemporary photographers assigned to capture life in an America reeling from the so-called Great Recession. The result: "More American Photographs," an exhibition of 100 works from past and present at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver.

MCAThomas1The show debuted last fall at the Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco, where Hoffmann is also the director.

"I wanted to juxtapose the classic with the contemporary interpretations," Hoffmann said. The new works were taken in 2011 by 12 artists with diverse styles, including Catherine Opie, Larry Clark, Walead Beshty and Stephen Shore.

Images of a desolate street corner lined with empty storefronts in Ohio and a somber, sparsely filled audience of ranchers and farmers at a livestock market in Visalia, Calif., are examples of the struggling economy.

For inspiration, artist Hank Willis Thomas spent time at the Library of Congress, where the FSA works are housed. "I had always been a big fan of WPA [Works Progress Administration] photos," Willis Thomas said on the phone from France, where he is in residency in Provence.

He used this opportunity to return to the impoverished Philadelphia neighborhood of Strawberry Mansion,where his grandmother lived for more than 60 years, taking a portrait of every house on the block. When completed, Willis Thomas' conceptual photograph consisted of more than 70 shots connected in an accordion style reminiscent of Ed Ruscha's landmark "Every Building on the Sunset Strip."

RecessionEvansAlthough familiar with well-known images such as Lange's "Migrant Mother," Hoffmann was surprised by how many people were unfamiliar with the FSA. So he has highlighted archival materials, original cameras and screens filmmaker Pare Lorentz's documentaries, written by Stryker, "The Plow That Broke the Plains" and "The River."

The exhibit will travel to the Wexner Center for the Arts in Ohio in early 2013.

 -- Liesl Bradner

Images: Dorothea Lange's print, top,"Family Between Dallas and Austin, Texas" (1936), courtesy of the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Center: Hank Willis Thomas' "Strawberry Mansion," courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York and  Museum of Contemporary Art, Denver. Bottom: Walker Evans' photo of Floyd Burroughs, cotton sharecropper, Hale County, Alabama (circa 1935), courtesy the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.