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Photos, films find profound in ordinary people
Peter Sekaer, Phrenologist's Window, New Orleans, 1936. Gelatin silver print. Image/Plate: 7 1/4 x 9 ¼ in. (18.4 x 23.5cm). Overall: 8 x 10in. (20.3 x 25.4cm). © Peter Sekaer Estate, High Museum of Art, Atlanta, GA, purchased with funds from Robert Yellowlees.

By: Ellen Freilich

NEW YORK (REUTERS).- An exhibit of photographs from the 1930s and 1940s and the work of a contemporary artist and filmmaker both show the profound in the everyday lives of ordinary people.

"Signs of Life; Photographs of Peter Sekaer," which began this month at the International Center for Photography (ICP) and runs through January 8, 2012, is the first major museum exhibit dedicated to Sekaer's work.

The Danish documentary photographer, who died in 1950, contributed to U.S. government photographic projects during the Great Depression after immigrating to the United States and studying photography with Berenice Abbott.

"Sekaer's photographs are among the finest produced in the Depression era in the United States," said ICP associate curator Kristen Lubben.

Working with American photographer Walker Evans in the South under the auspices of the U.S. Farm Security Administration, Sekaer photographed everyday scenes from New York to New Orleans: a machine factory in Savannah, Georgia, Salvation Army Musicians in Cleveland, Ohio, a prison chain gang in Georgia.

By earning his living as a sign painter, he inhabited both the working and artistic classes.

His photographs documenting government-sponsored relief efforts, and the conditions that required them, make his work particularly timely. The U.S. Census Bureau's latest annual snapshot of living standards shows 22 percent of children live below the poverty line, the largest percentage in nearly two decades.

"The images encourage the viewer to examine the attitude toward federal involvement in relief efforts in times of economic crisis," Lubben explained.

The photographs sometimes focused on race relations, allowing the stark images to help fuel the engine of social change, she said.

Aside from the content, the formal qualities of the photographs reflect a kind of modernism: straightforward, and sometimes austere. And their impact was lasting.

"It would be hard to find documentary photographers who don't point to this era," Lubben said.

Working people and attention to the ordinary are also hallmarks of the work of Kevin Jerome Everson whose films "Quality Control" and "The Prichard" will be shown at the New York Film Festival's "Views from the Avant-Garde" series on October 8.

Born in 1965 in the working-class community of Mansfield, Ohio, Everson depicts people living and working in similar American communities: a mechanic repairing an old car in a backyard, a young black beauty queen in a segregated pageant, young men walking into a courtroom, the aftermath of a murder.

"My artworks and films are about responding to daily materials, conditions, tasks, and gestures of people of African descent," Everson said.

Gavin Smith, co-curator of Views from the Avant-Garde, praised his work.

"Everson is a leading figure in experimental film with a clear focus on black life and the black experience," he said.

Everson works were the focus of a recent exhibit at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.

Photos | Peter Sekaer |

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