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.
Like Enyeart, Evans also shows signs of life in photographs devoid of people. In one, a wheelbarrow containing fallen apples awaits the hands that will lift it, while in another a handwritten advertisement offers “no tax” on chewing tobacco. Indoors she captures the social life of unnamed Kansans, men and women sitting at sunlit tables, drinking coffee, playing dominoes or cards. Outdoors, families line up against the backdrop of a front door, a field, or hay bales, demonstrating their rootedness to home and to the land. Those who have a puppy proudly present it. In these rather ordinary scenes, life pauses momentarily for the photographer. Then her subjects return to what they were doing—reading the paper, hanging laundry, feeding chickens—and so they get on with life.
Hoping to photograph people, Larry Schwarm was disappointed when Enyeart asked him to photograph the Kansas landscape. But of the three studies making up No Mountains in the Way, however, it is Schwarm’s that most poignantly captures the quirky spirit of rural Kansas. “Having grown up on a farm,” he said, “I had an appreciation for the land. So I was able to photograph a very subtle landscape and dig out of that things that were interesting.” From tilled soil in perfect rows and neatly stacked hay bales to a mural depicting grain towers and an approaching locomotive, he focuses not so much on the landscape as the marks left upon it by individual Kansans.
That Schwarm is attuned to Kansas humor is evident in his photograph Haystack with Tires. The haystack, propped up by three logs, has been decorated with two tires, transforming it into a face. In another photograph, an airplane sits inside a hangar emblazoned with the words “Ye Must Be Born Again,” as if offering chartered flights to heaven. Grain elevators rise in the landscape like cathedrals, and a field of stones playfully illustrates the difficulty of farming here. In the photograph Wire Collection, two enormous balls of barbed wire sit atop poles, seemingly larger than the house behind them. What kind of person makes such things and plants them in their yard? These dangerous trees, in an otherwise domestic space, induce a certain dread alongside wonder.
“No Mountains in the Way” was the prototype for a larger, national survey initiated by the NEA during the American Bicentennial celebration. From 1976 to 1981, the agency awarded Documentary Survey grants to more than 100 regional photographers. Forty years later, it remains an important document of American photography. It is the record of a particular American place. It is also the record of a time when NEA support shaped a generation of photographers, whose surveys combined into a national portrait. The current installation of 63 vintage prints from this survey of 120 photographs, are all works from the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s permanent collection. These photographs were presented in 2015 at the Wichita Art Museum to celebrate the 40th anniversary of this important project of documentary photography in Kansas.
The Smithsonian American Art Museum, located above the Gallery Place/Chinatown Metrorail station, is open daily from 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. (closed Dec. 25). Admission is free. Follow the museum on Twitter, YouTube, Tumblr, Instagram, Facebook, Flickr, iTunes U and ArtBabble.
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