Addison Gallery of American Art
Peter Sekaer: American Pictures
May 8-July 31, 1999
From May 8 to July 31, 1999, the Addison Gallery of American Art proudly presents Peter Sekaer: American Pictures. This landmark exhibition, organized in association with the Howard Greenberg Gallery in New York, is the first American museum exhibition of this social documentary photographer of the 1930s and 1940s. Like many of his contemporaries, Sekaer sought to capture the real world with photographs that combined artistic expression with a personal commitment to social change.
Born in Copenhagen, Denmark in 1901, Sekaer came to New York in 1918 to seek freedom and opportunity. By 1922 he had a reputation as a master sign painter and had his own successful business producing posters. Several years later he began to take classes at The Art Student's League. Sekaer soon became acquainted with Ben Shahn, who may have been the one to introduce him to photography and who later introduced him to Walker Evans. After 1933, he devoted himself exclusively to photography, studying with Berenice Abbott at the New School for Social Research, and assisting Walker Evans on the project of photographing The Museum of Modern Art's African sculpture collection. In 1936 Sekaer accompanied Evans, who was hired by the Resettlement Administration (RA, later to become the FSA) on a photographic journey throughout the South, often shooting the same subject.
The Addison is fortunate to have in its collection a valuable record of Sekaer's and Evans's southern journey in the form of a group of scrapbook pages containing over five hundred contact prints made by Sekaer. These pages, along with a small selection of Evans photographs from this trip, will be included in the exhibition. The comparison of each photographer's work makes clear the difference between Sekaer's vision and ideas and those of Evans, whose cool, detached and more formal images contrast with Sekaer's more human-related, warm and poignant style. Sekaer sought to capture people in their cultural environments, showing their strength, humanity and nobility. In his pictures, he also demonstrated his strength as a graphic artist which could be attributed to his years of training as a sign painter.
From 1936 to 1942 Sekaer became a professional photographer and was hired by the federal government agency, the Rural Electrification Administration (REA), and later became the head of the REA's graphic department. In 1938 the REA sent Sekaer to the United States Housing Authority (USHA). The photographs Sekaer made for the USHA, an agency primarily concerned with the removal of city slums and sponsorship of public urban housing, reveal his continued interest in the richness of human experience and environment. Transferred again in 1940 Sekaer photographed Navajo and Pueblo Indians for the Office of Indian Affairs. That same year, he worked as photographic researcher and still photographer for the REA film Power and the Land.
After 1942 he continued working for other federal agencies photographing briefly for the Office of War Information (OWI), and the American Red Cross-agencies whose propagandistic agendas conflicted with his own, and limited his freedom in artistic expression. Continually frustrated by this, Sekaer left Washington, DC for New York where he freelanced for several years, doing fashion and editorial assignments, until he died of a heart attack at the age of 49 in 1950.
Although Sekaer's photographs were widely published and exhibited during his lifetime, his work largely became forgotten after his death until an exhibition held in 1980 at the Witkin Gallery in New York and later in 1990 at the Royal Library in Copenhagen for which a catalogue was published. As the history of photography continues to be reconstructed, Sekaer's important influence and contribution will be rightfully realized.
A catalogue, with an introduction by Adam Weinberg, Director, and an essay by Allison Kemmerer, Associate Curator, is available.
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