FSA Photography & Contemporary Social Realism @Robert Miller

JTF (just the facts): A group show containing a total of 41 photographs by 10 different photographers, hung in the front room, the common area, and the two middle gallery spaces. (Installation shots at right.)

The following photographers are included in the main show, with the number of prints on view and image details as background:

  • Horace Bristol: 5 gelatin silver prints, framed in white/black and matted, sized between 9×7 and 14×11, from 1938
  • Jack Delano: 2 dye transfer prints and 2 gelatin silver prints, framed in white/black and matted, each 10×15 or 11×14, from 1940-1941
  • Walker Evans: 5 gelatin silver prints, framed in white/black and matted, sized from 5×8 to 7×11, from 1935-1945
  • Debbie Grossman: 5 inkjet prints, framed in black and matted, each 11×14, from 2010
  • Dorothea Lange: 3 gelatin silver prints, framed in white and matted, each roughly 8×9, from 1935-1936
  • Russell Lee: 3 dye transfer prints, framed in white and matted, each 10×13, from 1940
  • Arthur Rothstein: 2 gelatin silver prints, framed in black and matted, each 14×11, from 1936-1939
  • Zoe Strauss: 5 archival pigment prints, framed in white and unmatted, sized 13×27, 18×27, or 20×30, from 2001-2006
  • Emma Wilcox: 7 gelatin silver prints, framed in black and unmatted, each 20×24, in editions of 7, from 2002-2012
  • Marion Post Wolcott: 2 gelatin silver prints, framed in black and matted, sized between 10×6 and 7×10, from 1936

Large black and white photographic portraits by Josh Lehrer hang in the back gallery, but are designated separately on the checklist (Project Room) and have not been included in the discussion here.

Comments/Context: While an exhibit pairing photographs from the 1930s Farm Security Administration with contemporary social realism certainly sounds promising in general, this particular show doesn’t quite fire on all cylinders. This isn’t so much a reflection on the quality of the work (which is excellent from the FSA bunch and plenty strong from the more current artists) as it is a lack of interesting parallels and unexpected connections. The chasm between the two time periods is wide enough that even though there are some common issues (poverty first among them), there isn’t a clear continuum of visual ideas connecting the past and the present in the selected pictures. As a result, the show feels a bit disjointed and awkward, instead of resonating with juxtaposed insight.

The only true pairing in this show is the side by side hanging of Russell Lee’s 1940s small town farmers and Debbie Grossman’s digital manipulations of those same images sixty years later, where she has carefully replaced all the men with women, creating a fictional all female world. It’s a clever old/new mix, where the physical labor of homesteaders is done by women and stoic square dancing families have two female parents; traditional gender roles are smartly upended and reconsidered. Many of the other FSA works on view are penetrating vintage portraits: Rothstein’s Montana rancher, Wolcott’s coal miner, Bristol’s bearded migrant, and Lange’s disembodied weathered hands, wearing torn work clothes and holding a wooden hoe. On the contemporary side, Zoe Strauss offers shot appliances and and the texture of a yellow curtain, while Emma Wilcox plumbs the depths of darkness, via shadowy checkout aisles, stenciled skulls, and an aerial town shot with the residence of a thief indicated by large white letters and an arrow.

I think this show would have benefited from the inclusion of a few more contemporary photographers and a more conscious and repeated mixing of the two time periods; instead of bigger single artist groups, small side by side comparisons might have helped to tease out the similarities and differences. That said, there’s plenty of solid work worth seeing here, even if the thematic construct isn’t hugely effective.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced as follows:

  • Horace Bristol: $10000, $12500, $15000 or NFS
  • Jack Delano: $3500, $4000 or $6000
  • Walker Evans: between $9500 and $26000
  • Debbie Grossman: $2500 or $3500
  • Dorothea Lange: between $8000 and $12500
  • Russell Lee: $6000 or $7000
  • Arthur Rothstein: $2500 or $3500
  • Zoe Strauss: $2600, $3250, or $3600
  • Emma Wilcox: $1850 each
  • Marion Post Wolcott: $3000 or $5000

The work of the FSA photographers is generally available in the secondary markets, ranging from the iconic and expensive to the lesser known and very reasonably priced. The work of the contemporary photographers in this show (Grossman, Strauss, and Wilcox) is much less available at auction, so gallery retail will likely be the best option for following up on these three.

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Read more about: Arthur Rothstein, Debbie Grossman, Dorothea Lange, Emma Wilcox, Horace Bristol, Jack Delano, Marion Post Wolcott, Russell Lee, Walker Evans, Zoe Strauss, Robert Miller Gallery

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