Feb. 26 – July 31, 2016
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Eighth and F streets N.W. Graphic Arts Galleries, Second Floor
In the 1970s, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) conceived a series of photo survey projects, inspired by the epic documentary photography program undertaken by the federal government in the 1930s and 1940s. From 1935 to 1944, the Farm Security Administration (FSA) under leader Roy Stryker sent some of the era’s most talented photographers on a mission to capture rural poverty during the Great Depression.
In 1974, with a grant of $5,000 from the NEA, “No Mountains in the Way” was organized by Jim Enyeart, then curator of photography at the University of Kansas Museum of Art. He and Kansas natives Terry Evans and Larry Schwarm-all artists who have attained considerable achievement in the intervening decades-travelled the state, photographing whatever struck them as representative. Each worked on an assigned theme. Enyeart focused on buildings, Evans on people and Schwarm on the landscape. Their collective visions combined to poetically reflect place, culture and custom in Kansas. The exhibition and catalog were presented in 1975.
In the Kansas documentary project, Jim Enyeart said he wanted to produce an “aesthetic” survey of the state. He likened it to the photography program of the Farm Security Administration, which documented social upheaval during the Great Depression. However, with No Mountains in the Way, Enyeart sought to avoid any particular artistic style or political agenda by asking photographers to focus on a theme. When various themes were objectively photographed, he wrote, “an even greater sense of Kansas” would be apparent in the combined photographs “than from any one of the individual studies.”
Enyeart’s theme was architecture. His photographs are devoid of people, but the buildings he portrays are replete with signs of life. A sign in a shop window in the town of White Cloud identifies it as a hobby shop, another in Cottonwood Falls as a café, and another in Cummings as the U.S. Post Office. But where are the Kansans? Roaming dogs, a flag in the breeze, and children in the shadows are the only evidence that Enyeart’s structures are not long abandoned. To see their interiors, where people live and socialize, we must look to Terry Evans’s photographs. To see beyond their facades, where people work and play, we must view the landscape photographs of Larry Schwarm. Together, as Enyeart hoped, these three themes form a rich composite portrait of life in Kansas.
Terry Evans is best known for her photographs of the prairies and plains of North America. For No Mountains in the Way, Jim Enyeart asked her to photograph the people of Kansas. Evans blends documentation with portraiture in images that move easily from context to close-up. She works with a medium-format camera, shooting from the hip rather than from eye level. In portraits, its effect is to monumentalize. The farmer in the portrait Roy, who seems to tower over the photographer, becomes statuesque, an archetype rather than an individual. Continue reading