What We Feel and What We Mean
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The Stages of the American Dream on the Walls of ICP

During our class visit to the International Center of Photography, I decided to focus on the Peter Sekaer exhibit called “Signs of Life.” Sekaer was a Depression-era photographer who had spent a good part of his photographic career as a documentarian committed to social change. I noticed that the unknown and unrecognized who populate his images appear quite natural and at ease in front of his camera. To some, the photographs can appear quite boring, their documentary style capturing neither drama nor contemplation. However, that is the point Sekaer wanted to bring out through his art. I believe he wanted his audience to reflect upon the dismal state of the American dream amidst a failure of capitalism. The precise details of poverty and lack of poetic intrusions demonstrate what this failure looks like. One of the photographs that I felt brought out Sekaer’s style and intention was “Anniston, Alabama, 1936.” You see four African-American men standing around a movie theater’s outside stairwell. The stairs are marked in large white letters with the word “colored;” a movie poster for the latest Tarzan film during that time, “Call of the Savage” is mounted to the brick wall and hovers over the men. I appreciate how astutely Sekaer juxtaposes poverty and social injustice, presenting Technicolor Hollywood and working classmen in the same setting. I also thought about how Sekaer may be hinting at underlying traces of racial prejudice that became a huge issue in the later decades by capturing African-American men standing next to a sign that says, “COLORED” that people often associate with African-Americans.

While walking around the different exhibits, I took note of the placement of each exhibit, particularly of “Signs of Life” and “Harper’s Bazaar A Decade of Style.” The main floor represented the state of the American dream. I was walking through Sekaer’s black-and-white photographs, mounted on dark green walls, to arrive at the bright pink and white walls that feature more flamboyant and exotic statements of design and social status. From one footstep to the next, I traveled from the poverty of the 1930s to the celebrity dreams that fill so much of our public life today. It is as if I were standing on a thin threshold between the past and present of what makes up the American society.


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