The stunning new exhibition at The International Center of Photography forces you to slow down, ignore the hustle of the city outside, take a deep breath and dive into a world long gone. Signs of Life: Photographs by Peter Sekaer presents the Danish-born photographer’s now obscure work chronicling America under the New Deal, portraying a land of poverty, segregation, hope and utter beauty. Like his better-known colleague Walker Evans, Sekaer traveled both the rural and urban roads of America for his photographic subjects. He created a poetic elegy to the period.
With an outsider’s objectivity, using his background in commercial art, Sekaer brings an elegant sense of design as well as a great love for signs and typography to his work. It struck me how many of these “sign” photos presage later 20th-century artists like Ed Ruscha and Barbara Kruger. Delightful calligraphic swirls spell out “Jones Barber Shop.” A solid art deco font marches up a staircase labeled ”Colored.”
I think, however, that the curator has used the word “sign” in a broader context. In Sekaer’s quiet and often empty urban landscapes, these signs, posters and bits of advertising are a reminder that these were once vibrant communities.
Sekaer’s portraits of people, though posed, capture a quiet sense of loss and despair. There are not a lot of smiles in these photos, but their masterful composition and beauty dispel any sense of gloom. Most of the photos in the show were commissioned by the government to document the Great Depression. A stoic populace stares into the camera, refusing to give up or give in. Sekaer’s lush silver prints—an older, but arguably subtler photographic technology—is a reminder of just how much is lost in contemporary digital prints.
This is a powerful political exhibition. Its juxtaposition with a fluffy retrospective of photos from Harper’s Bazaar in ICP’s next room may be a sly comic statement about the medium’s diverse use. And as Occupy Wall Street marchers passed by the museum, I thought about how Sekaer’s photographs comment on the world of the haves versus the have nots from long ago.
Signs of Life: Photographs by Peter Sekaer Through Jan. 8, 2012, International Center of Photography, 1133 6th Ave., 212-857-0000, www.icp.org.