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Photography Exhibition States of America at Nottingham Contemporary

13 October 17 words: Emily Thursfield

The Nottingham Contemporary is currently playing host to a new photography exhibition – States of America – and it’s a real thinker. Covering thirty years of American history, the collection introduces the audience to the realities of post-war North American society and leaves us reflecting on the world we live in today...

When I first walked into States of America and discovered that the photographs spanned through the Civil Rights Movement, the women's liberation movement, anti-Vietnam war protests and the Reagan era, I was expecting to leave feeling politically charged and zealous. After all, documentary photography was used to support moves towards increased social justice during the first half of the twentieth century. Instead, I found an exhibition that showcases the true lives of American citizens during a period of dramatic social change, highlighting both the peace and drudgery found within daily life.

States of America is made up of nearly 250 individual photographs, taken from the sixties to the early nineties. Collectively, the work in this exhibition – including that of Diane Arbus, Mark Cohen, William Eggleston, Mary Ellen Mark, Milton Rogovin, Ming Smith and Stephen Shore – offers its audience a window into the heart of American society. Most of the artists use innovative approaches or experiment with film, whereas others just liked to photograph people. The overall result is a highly emotive collection that documents the realities and illusions of the American dream.

The collection does not follow a chronological format. Instead, the photographs have been split between all four galleries at the Contemporary, each offering a different line of enquiry. In Gallery 1, Subject or Object questions whether the relationship between photographer and subject can affect the pictures created. At first glance, it seems that the artists who spent many years with their subjects managed to take the most authentic pictures. For example, Mary Ellen Mark’s Streetwise saw her spend five years on the streets of Seattle, slowly befriending a teenage sex worker and her friends. By gaining their trust, she was able to delve into the areas of their lives that were normally kept private, and create insightful images that respected them, rather than pitied them.

By gaining their trust, she was able to delve into the areas of their lives that were normally kept private, and create insightful images that respected them, rather than pitied them.

It’s Mark Cohen’s impulsive and frantic method of capturing his subject, however, that feels most interesting. He was known for being intrusive; getting up close to the subject with a wide angle lense and a flashgun, even in broad daylight. In many of these images, the subjects look startled or avoid eye contact with the camera completely. In others, people throw him a sidewards glance or even a wide smile. Either way, these images are a stark contrast to the posed profile shots that saturate our social media feeds today. What was most intriguing was the defensive reactions of many subjects; mothers hold their children’s hands tightly to pull them away, and owners bend down to shield their dogs. It appears as though Cohen posed a threat, and their gut reaction was to protect the thing they loved the most. 

The works of William Eggleston and Stephen Shore exhibited in A Changing Landscape in Gallery 2 have a lot in common. They were some of the first artists to use colour photography and, on the surface, they both seem to celebrate banal scenes and objects but, on closer examination, their photographs show a suspicion of the beginnings of mass advertising in the US. Their pictures offer the audience glimpses of an American society that we still recognise today: Coca Cola, McDonald’s, old-fashioned diners with ketchup in big, red bottles; all iconic American objects.

The development of mass advertising is just one phenomenon that A Changing Landscape deals with in its attempt to illustrate how the American way of life changed following World War II. Its other main focus is the decaying of city centres; the wealthy moving to suburbia, taking the shops and factories with them. This left cities with nothing but struggling businesses and run-down housing.

The development of mass advertising is just one phenomenon that A Changing Landscape deals with in its attempt to illustrate how the American way of life changed following World War II

The divide between the rich and poor seemed bigger than ever, but there was one place where the lines of privilege and social hierarchy were forced to blur. Taken in 1980 – a time of financial crisis in New York – Bruce Davidson’s critically acclaimed collection Subway brilliantly captures the mixing of people from all walks of life. His pictures range from shots of glamorous women in expensive clothing to gangs of white teenagers and big families cramped together in one train carriage, their differences forgotten during their daily commute.

The exhibition doesn’t deal directly with the Civil Rights Movement, although collections like Subway examine the changing rights of black people. Bruce Davidson’s work with black communities for East 100th Street is a valuable part of Gallery 3’s Interiors and Private Spaces. These photographs document the lives of black communities in the aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement; in particular, the terrible living conditions they were forced to endure. The images were not created out of pity; instead, they were used by the East Harlem housing activists to campaign for improvement. In fact, the whole collection contains a sense of the activism that was taking place during this time. A most memorable image shows a white woman looking startled as a black woman pulls up a chair next to her in a restaurant.

Interiors and Private Spaces is also home to what is arguably the most emotive collection in the exhibition. In Rich and Poor, Jim Goldberg photographed people in their homes with the intention of accurately describing life in the US. Over the eight-year series, he photographed both the privileged and the poor, and asked for their opinions on their life. One image depicts a young boy and his parents who appear to be living in a one-bedroom house. Their caption reads: “Poverty sucks, but it brings us closer together.”

Poverty sucks, but it brings us closer together.

A few frames down stands an image of a lady on a balcony next to a telescope, holding her dog. Her caption reads: “Poorer people’s lives are less complicated. They do not have to worry about running such a big house.” The overwhelming message of this collection is clear; money cannot buy happiness.

The final section of the exhibition – Come Together, in Gallery 4 – is filled with a positive message. From Joseph Szabo’s pictures of carefree teenagers, to Ming Smith’s work featuring African-Americans in a space between the visible and invisible, the focus is very much on the people presented in the images, rather than the social context surrounding them, more so than anywhere else in the exhibition.

Garry Winogrand’s Women are Beautiful is an excellent series of photographs that celebrates contemporary, urban women throughout the sixties and the early-to-mid seventies. The pictures feel spontaneous and candid, and showcase the infamous style of the era: beehive hair, flared trousers, glam makeup and short skirts. But the collection is much more than just a highlight of the fashion at the time. It documents the liberation of women, capturing groups of women protesting for rights, holding signs that read “Stop the world, we want to get on.” While these photos have been criticised for objectifying the female body, they can also be recognised as a celebration of women’s freedom of dress, expression and sexual confidence.

The Civil Rights Movement and women’s liberation are important events of the past, but some of us may never have considered the daily life of someone living in that society; we may never consider what the house of a young, black couple in the sixties would look like, or how a woman in the seventies would dress when marching for her rights. States of America reminds us that behind every protest and movement lies real people who are fighting for their cause; people with names and faces we may never see in the history books.

States of America runs at Nottingham Contemporary until Sunday 26 November, and it’s free to view.

Nottingham Contemporary website


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