New York City’s Museum of Modern Art and Guggenheim Museum are not the usual stages for considering rural subjects. But they actually are at the moment.
Dorothea Lange’s classic photography of the 1930s to 1950s is currently the focus of the exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA). The Guggenheim show, Countryside: The Future, looks at the present and future of rural places, with a special focus on the environment.
Both museums are closed currently due to the coronavirus pandemic, but their shows are partially available on-line. I had a trip a New York planned to see both shows but also find that the museums’ sites are worth a virus-free visit.
MOMA’s website presentation of the Lange exhibit allows the viewer to scroll around each room of the show, and then enlarge 100 of the photos on the walls. Also included on the site are several useful background essays. The site also has brief but excellent audios on 15 of the photos.
Lange was part of a famous team of photographers, led by Roy Stryker, who worked during the New Deal and Second World War for the Resettlement Administration (RA), Farm Security Administration (FSA), and Office of War Information. They traveled the nation and took pictures of everyday people and places, urban and rural, documenting the Depression, the Dust Bowl, and other conditions.
The exhibit mentions the FSA and RA only in passing, at least in the online presentations. An excellent resource on the photos is Roy Stryker and Nancy Wood, In This Proud Land: America 1935-1943 as Seen in the FSA Photographs, published in 1973 by Galahad Books and available on Amazon. It has over 160 pages of the photos by Lange and others. The MOMA exhibit also apparently doesn’t mention the other talented FSA photographers such as Gordon Parks, Walker Evans, Arthur Rothstein, Ben Shahn, and Marion Post Wolcott. A total of 18 photographers contributed work between 1935 and 1944.
MOMA hasn’t just discovered Lange recently. The museum had a show of her photos in 1966. She helped with the planning of that show but sadly died just before it opened. As part of that exhibit, Lange wrote, “I am trying here to say something about the despised, the defeated, the alienated. About death and disaster. About the wounded, the crippled, the helpless, the rootless, the dislocated. About duress and trouble. About finality.”
In addition to her images of rural poverty, Lange also documented the wartime internment of Japanese Americans, one of the more disgraceful episodes in U.S. history. The new MOMA exhibit covers all of Lange’s career, not just her FSA years in the late 1930s.
The complete FSA/OWI collection of about 175,000 images is now held at the Library of Congress and can be accessed online. It is an amazing archive, allowing downloads of and providing ordering information for all the photos.
Lange’s most famous photograph – and one of the most iconic photos ever – is, of course, the “Migrant Mother” (above). Lange took the picture in March 1936. It is of Florence Thompson and three of her children. Its title in the Library of Congress catalog is perhaps descriptive of rural poverty broadly – “Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California.” MOMA includes an excellent online essay about the background of the picture.
The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum’s exhibit is very different, focusing on the present and future, and on “how countryside everywhere is changing beyond recognition.” Unlike at MOMA, the actual exhibit is not on the website. But, winding up the long ramp of the Guggenheim’s famous circular gallery, the exhibit looks at “countryside” trends worldwide.
The focus is on such contemporary topics as China’s countryside, food production in Qatar, transformations in Kenya, and refugee villages in Europe. One trend described is the rise of large data processing centers in rural America. Eighteen audio tapes on the website, totaling 58 minutes, introduce and explain.
Some were over my head at first: semiotics and, my favorite, “Cartesian euphoria.” But the audios explain, for example, that the semiotics treatment is about how advertisers have used rural images and language for decades to promote their products. A section on “precision agriculture” explains that high-tech farming methods can be used for conservation and sustainability, but also for larger-scale maximum production by corporate producers.
The Guggenheim exhibit is the product of a five-year research effort led by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas and an international team from China, Kenya, the Netherlands, and the U.S.
While showing a bit of the urban intellectual’s wonderment at having discovered rural, the exhibit is also very useful in pointing out many of the environmental and other challenges affecting all of us today. And from the museum’s site you can order a “Countryside” mug, a ball cap, or a t-shirt – all in Manhattan-sophisticate black.
Joe Belden is a writer and consultant based in Washington, D.C.