Like all too many cityscapes, the bustling area surrounding New York City’s Lincoln Center has been transformed by Covid-19. What was once the hoity-toity Brooks Brothers menswear shop is now an empty storefront. The former sprawling retail mecca Century 21 likewise sits vacant. And the site of EuroPan, an affordable brunch deli, is now … an art gallery? Full of gorgeous photographs?
What a pleasant surprise. The new venue, known as Center Gallery, is showcasing historic images by famed early to mid-20th century photographers. Photographs of Utah: 1935–1948 which runs through October 10, features work by Ansel Adams, Dorthea Lange, Russell Lee, Andreas Feininger, John Vachon, and Arthur Rothstein.
“This is a pop-up gallery,” explains Glen Nelson, director of Center Gallery and curator of the current show. “It came about after the space was vacated during the pandemic.” The venue is a project of the Center for Latter-day Saints Arts—an independent, nonprofit arm of the nearby Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, owner of the space—which also stages various art events in NYC and beyond. “We have this lease till the end of May ,” Nelson says. Afterward, the market rate for a commercial rental may lead someone to displace the gallery. “We’re making the most of it while we have it,” he says, adding that extensions of the lease are under discussion.
Art for Uncertain Times
For now, Center Gallery is staging new art exhibitions every couple of months. After the Utah photo show, next will be contemporary art created during the pandemic. Siloed: Art for Uncertain Times will run October 15–January 5, featuring work drawn from a global call for proposals—including photography, visual art, poetry, film, music, drama, and dance—reflecting themes ranging from the pandemic and lockdown to civil unrest over social justice.
“This work was selected by a jury of artists, scholars, and executives with distinct arts knowledge and backgrounds,” says Emily Doxford, organizer of the exhibition. “Art for Uncertain Times was born of the center’s desire to belong to our community in a moment of global distress. The inclination to create offered a tether of faith during uncertainty, and we clung to Georges Braque’s notion: ‘Art is a wound turned to light.’”
Doxford cites powerful work in the upcoming exhibition from younger artists (ages 8–18) in the Next Generation call. “That part of the project occurred last summer during the [Black Lives Matter] protests and when social unrest was devastatingly top of mind for many young artists,” she says. “These individuals deal with challenging issues head-on. Their understanding of the political, social, and physical health conditions of our community is stunningly frank.”
Nelson notes that some of the 2020 work by youngsters “is kind of scary regarding Covid, while some is a reaction to BLM and social injustice. So for the children, those things were happening all at once, right?”
He says both shows—Art for Uncertain Times and Photographs of Utah—seek to offer “a cultural exchange” with viewers. While the Church of LDS is Center Gallery’s landlord, it has no sway on its work. “It’s our gig,” says Nelson, who is a Mormon, a Utah native now three-decade transplanted New Yorker, and a scholar of photographic history.
In the shows common themes emerge: isolation, individualism, perseverance during hard times. Nelson notes that the images featured in Photographs of Utah were essentially taken by outsiders looking in.
During and after the Great Depression, this work was commissioned by the federal government as part of FDR’s New Deal, first with the Resettlement Administration, then with the Farm Security Administration and, later, the Office of War Information. In the 1930s, a core group of a dozen photographers (culled from a larger force of around 40) were sent to points out west and instructed to “introduce Americans to America,” in the words of economic adviser Rexford Tugwell.
A number of these photographers would go on to renowned careers, including the half-dozen in this show. But at the time they visited Utah, they were on assignment, with workmanlike pay and deadlines, exploring a remote civilization.
Expanse and Isolation
“In Utah, you have this place that was super-isolated by design,” Nelson says. “It’s like the Mormon crowd was in a silo. They didn’t want anything to do with the outside world because of their previous experience as being beleaguered and ridiculed people in the Northeast and Midwest, so they went there to find peace in the desert. As a consequence, much of America didn’t know anything about them. Imagine if you’re one of these photographers assigned to go there: You’re a little skeptical. Who are these people? And they’ve never had somebody from the government in their house.
“So when Russell Lee walks into these little tiny towns and into their homes and churches, he discovers this whole world,” Nelson adds. “And Dorothea Lange—who is supremely gifted in an ability to find people who are suffering, connect with them, look them in the eye, and portray them in front of her camera—just two weeks after she took that gorgeous photograph of the migrant mother in California, she’s in Utah, working in the same mode. That’s part of this show.”
The hardscrabble frontier life also comes through in Feininger’s images of workers in mining and smelting plants. “Mining towns were rising and falling with economic cycles,” Nelson notes. “Cities were coalescing. Copper and steel production, just in time for World War II, were becoming potent industries in the state.”
Yet in Utah, the photographers found an untamed, rugged landscape—as captured by NYC native Arthur Rothstein, FSA documentarian John Vachon, and famed environmentalist Ansel Adams, who shot in Utah for the Department of Interior, then returned after earning a Guggenheim fellowship to document national parks.
“Ansel Adams was the outlier here,” Nelson says, “because he came back when he was famous, and he could do exactly what he wanted to do: set up and really take his time, wait for the light to be just so. He would happen on the perfect shot—after sitting for four hours, waiting.”
Nelson explains that most of the prints for this show were produced from negatives held by the Library of Congress, whose scans are not always pristine. “We ordered about half of our prints directly from the Library of Congress. But some of their prints were off-site, which meant that they would take too long to get, so we had a commercial photographer work from the highest-resolution files we could download online.”
Thus you won’t always see the print quality that, say, Adams typically obtained in his later artwork. The point here is more authenticity than artistry. “We didn’t do manipulation of color or anything,” Nelson says. “These are the images that the government owns.”
They reflect an American confluence of natural and societal forces, as well as the reactions of individuals, in a troubled era. A time of uncertainty skewed by hope. Not unlike the one we live in now.
This essay originally appeared on the author’s The Out There Side blog series. Featured image of Glen Nelson, outside of the Center Gallery, by Marcia Nelson.