Walker Evans. Alabama Cotton Tenant Farmer’s Wife, 1936, printed about 1962.

PHOTOGRAPHY + FOLK ART: Looking for America in the 1930s

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Collecting the past while recording the present.

In the 1930s, as the United States was struggling through the Great Depression, a rising interest in early American vernacular arts—collectively referred to as folk art—converged with major documentary photographic projects. As artists, curators, collectors, and government administrators sought to define American culture as distinct from Europe, they identified in these two burgeoning fields a national culture they considered egalitarian, unpretentious, and self-made.

A work made of pine, paint, and gold leaf.
Eagle, 1870/1900
John Haley Bellamy

This exhibition is the first to connect these twin impulses to collect the past and record the present by examining the roots of documentary photography and folk art and revealing how the fields were shaped in the early 20th century. At the heart of the display are works that represent two massive governmental projects to document and catalogue everyday life in America. The first, the Works Progress Administration’s (WPA) Index of American Design, hired artists to reproduce in watercolor some 18,000 American decorative arts and crafts from the colonial period to the 1800s. At the same time, the Farm Security Administration (FSA) hired some of the country’s most talented photographers—including Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, and Arthur Rothstein—to document the plight of everyday Americans and the government’s role in assisting them, producing an indelible image bank of a nation in crisis.

Black and white photograph of women, lips pursed, against wood paneled wall.
Alabama Cotton Tenant Farmer’s Wife, 1936, printed c. 1962
Walker Evans

These arts and objects of everyday people, places, and things inspired a new range of collectors—both individual and institutional—and the work entered the collections of museums and galleries at unprecedented rates. Looking for America examines the legacies of enthusiasts such as Bernard and Margaret Behrend and Elizabeth Vaughan, whose collecting activities led to the foundation of the Art Institute’s own folk art collection.

A work made of iron.
Peacock Weather Vane, 1800/60
Artist unknown

Alongside carvings, ceramics, furniture, and metalwork emblematic of those illustrated in the WPA Index of American Design, landmark photographs, including key works from Walker Evans’s American Photographs and Berenice Abbott’s Changing New York, reveal how photography began defining modern art. Drawn almost entirely from the museum’s permanent collection, the interdisciplinary display features over 100 works of photography, decorative arts, painting, sculpture, and textiles that are not only vibrant and dynamic examples of American ingenuity but emblematic of a modern—and distinct—American character and vitality.

A work made of gelatin silver print.
Girl at Gee’s Bend, Alabama [Artelia Bendolph], April 1937
Arthur Rothstein

Photography + Folk Art: Looking for America in the 1930s is supported by Vicki and Tom Horwich.

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