Monday, October 4, 2010

Peter Sekaer: An Untold Story @Greenberg

JTF (just the facts): A total of 44 black and white photographs, framed in brown wood and matted, and hung against brown walls in the main gallery space. All of the works are gelatin silver prints, taken between 1934 and 1940; most of the prints are vintage, although a few modern prints are also mixed in. Sizes range from 4x5 to 15x17. The images primarily depict the southern states, but there are a few New York and Philadelphia scenes included as well. In the book alcove, a selection of FSA photography from 1935-1940 is on view as a foil. A total of 14 works from Ben Shahn, Lee Russell, Jack Delano, Walker Evans, Arthur Rothstein and Marian Post Wolcott are on display in this small area. (Installation shots at right.)

Comments/Context: One of the things that continually surprises me about photography as an art form is that new photographers of merit continue to be rediscovered, dug out of the archives decades after they have come and gone, and presented for reconsideration in the context of an already agreed upon historical narrative. It would be easy to assume that the story of the 1930s Depression-era photography of the FSA and WPA has already been entirely told, and yet here is Peter Sekaer, a forgotten player from this period now found once again, with a solo museum show at the High Museum in Atlanta and an accompanying gallery show at Howard Greenberg.
While Sekaer knew Ben Shahn and studied with Berenice Abboott, it is the influence of Walker Evans that is most obvious in his pictures. Sekaer actually printed for Evans in 1935 and the two later traveled together through the South on an assignment for the Resettlement Association. In many cases, they shot from similar locations or documented common subjects, so the resemblance between the two is more than just a coincidence.

When Sekaer pointed his camera at vernacular signage and small town graphic design or at architectural fronts and building details, his work is a dead ringer for that of Evans. There is the same deadpan admiration for the painted head of a cow or the lettering on a storefront window, the same spare compositions of shutter doors, roof moldings, and geometric building forms. His approach is straightforward and unadorned, with close attention to contrast and tonality, finding small town whimsy in the displays of commerce, and layered, textured patterns in the lines of everyday houses. Sekaer's images of people are perhaps one click warmer than those of Evans, a little less stoic and heroic, a little more active and empathetic. Throngs of kids play on dirt streets or hang out on a front porch behind a wire mesh, while adults are captured flash-lit in their kitchens and living spaces.

Overall, while I'm not sure that I can discern a truly innovative or original point of view in these pictures, they are undeniably well-made photographs that are clearly relevant to the larger 1930s photographic landscape. For collectors of FSA work and fans of Walker Evans, I think Sekaer will be a welcome addition. While he will likely remain a secondary figure in the overall historical story, Sekaer seems to have made plenty of solid images that would happily share a wall with better known Depression-era names.

Collector's POV: The prints in this show are priced between $3000 and $20000, with the majority between $6000 and $12000. Sekaer's work does not have much history in the auction markets, as the inventory of work seems to have been fairly closely controlled; only a few lots have come up for sale in the past five years or so, with prices falling between $3000 and $10000.
Rating: * (one star) GOOD (rating system described here)
Transit Hub:

  • Exhibition: Signs of Life, High Museum (here), accompanying monograph (here)
  • Review: New Yorker (here)
  • Feature: NY Times (here)
Peter Sekaer: An Untold Story
Through October 23rd
41 East 57th Street
New York, NY 10022

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