"That was me," the white-haired woman standing near me at the exhibition said quietly. We were examining a photo by Russel Lee of a school choir from the 1930s. The shoeless children wore threadbare Sunday clothes, yet their expressions were jubilant. "It was a long time ago," she said, "but I remember being that age once and poor as sin."
The woman's comments exemplify the purpose of the multidisciplinary project "Defining America: 1935-1940," currently at the Sun Valley Center for the Arts in Ketchum (through Nov. 16). The exhibit links an era which was so crucial in forming the identity of the American heartland to viewers of today through photographs, music and literature.
The main feature of the project is a photography exhibition highlighting several artists commissioned by the Farm Security Administration in the 1930s. Over the 10 years following the 1929 stock market crash, photographers traveled across the country capturing the poverty, desperation and persistent hope of the blue-collar workforce. The commission was an attempt to bring public awareness to Works Progress Administration projects, but the resulting photos evidence an array of livelihoods, from New Mexico homesteaders to factory employees on the East Coast.
Short biographies accompanying the photographs tell of each artist's intents: Some were motivated by the desire to reveal the need for social change; others were devoted to creating an interesting composition. The common thread between the photos is a narrative nature and excellent quality. Included are works by prominent documentary photographers of the century, like Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange. Both Lange and Evan's works isolate the expression or posture of individual subjects or families, yet suggest those individuals' hardships were universal for the era.
Not every piece in "Defining America" is a picture of hopelessness; several photographers captured the leisure time of '30s small town, USA. Some of the earliest color photography is on display here, highlighting people playing games at the state fair or lounging in front of a grocery store.
In conjunction with the photography exhibit, the SVCA also offers an arts and class series focusing on the music, literature and history of the period.
As the title of the exhibition suggests, these works collaborate to create a picture of a definitive American era. And like the elderly woman's reflective comment suggested, the '30s are still in the memories of living generations. Defining America gives us the opportunity to tap that bank, perhaps for the first time for some generations, perhaps through nostalgia for others.