Although two very different historic times, the Great Depression and the COVID-19 pandemic have had major impacts on American life and society.
Photographers were there to document the effects wrought by these experiences, and their impactful work is being showcased in a new exhibit at the Decorative Arts Center of Ohio.
Featuring photography from two times of national struggle, Chronicles: The Great Depression and the Pandemic highlights Depression-era photographers from the Works Progress Administration’s (WPA) Farm Security Administration (FSA) program and contemporary photographers reacting to the current COVID-19 pandemic.
For curators Christine Fowler Shearer and Arnold S. Tunstall, pairing these two historic times together for one exhibit offered an opportunity to showcase the resilience of the American people as they tackled the trials and tribulations placed before them.
“This exhibition is unique because it looks at a past major event in history, The Great Depression, and the most recent COVID-19 pandemic through the eyes of artists and photographers,” Shearer said. “I enjoyed curating this exhibition because of the ability to tie the past and present together into a narrative.”
The photographs chosen for the historical aspect of the exhibition feature the work of Great Depression photographers, but are presented in ways that are not normally seen, she says.
“The FSA photos were acquired by spending lots of time looking through the digital archives of the Library of Congress,” Shearer said. “I specifically chose works that were not well known from the Depression, and many of them have never been printed.”
While some images have connections to Lancaster and throughout Ohio, the majority of the photos are universal in theme and feeling, she says.
“They represent collectively the Depression era and can relate to most places and people in the Midwest,” Shearer said. “I wanted to show the wide range of styles while also showing the overall intent of the FSA photographers and their assignments.”
Two of the galleries will make juxtapositions between the past and the present by showcasing historic and contemporary artists together.
“I think overall it will be a jumping off point to learn from the past while making connections between past and future,” Shearer said.
Thematically, photographers from both eras have similar styles in how they tell stories, Tunstall says.
“The artists are working in very similar styles and working with similar modes of storytelling, using portraiture and the home to highlight the average citizen and to amplify the ‘noble American worker,’” he said. “The photographers also use landscape and vernacular buildings and signage to convey part of the story.”
Depression-era photographers include Esther Bubley, Jack Delano, Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, Carl Mydans, Gordon Parks, Arthur Rothstein, Ben Shahn, John Vachon and Marion Post Wolcott.
Contemporary photographers include Autumn Bland, Donald Black, Jr., Angelo Merendino, Jane Alden Stevens and Shane Wynn.
Shearer and Tunstall say they hope visitors will walk away from the exhibit with a better appreciation for the value of documentary photography and how the style established by the FSA photographers in the ‘30s and ‘40s still influence photographers today.
“We hope visitors understand that history often repeats itself and we can learn from the past - both successes and failures - and that overall, the American people persevere in difficult times,” Tunstall said.
Chronicles: The Great Depression and the Pandemic runs through August 28, 2022.
Complementing this exhibition is the lecture, In Search of America: WPA Arts and the New Deal Culture, which will take place at 2 p.m. June 19. David Steigerwald, Professor of History at The Ohio State University, will explore works of WPA photography and the impact of these works on the culture of the New Deal. Register for this event.
An Artist Talk with photographer Shane Wynne will also take place at 2 p.m. August 7. Wynn will share the stories and process of her works that are included in the current exhibition. Register for this Artist Talk.