The High Museum's Signs of Life: Photographs by Peter Sekaer is the sleeper photographic exhibition of the summer. A contemporary of Walker Evans and a student of Berenice Abbott, Sekaer was well-known in the 1930s and '40s but slipped through the cracks after his death in 1950, only to be rediscovered in the last few decades. Under its outgoing curator of photography, Julian Cox, the High has amassed the largest and most significant collection of the artist's work in the United States.
Sekaer, represented in this exhibition by 75 vintage prints, traveled the country and produced a significant body of Depression-era photographs while working as a photographer for U.S. government agencies such as the Housing Authority and the Rural Electrification Administration. The images reflect his considerable compositional skills, the intense compassion he felt for his subjects, and his own quirky perspective.
Sekaer came to the U.S. from Denmark at age 17. He arrived after the First World War and owned a successful poster and silkscreen business — an interest that resurfaces in his later photographs, which often include screened and painted graphics on the sides of buildings. Sekaer's attraction to the graphic art that littered early 20th-century urban landscape gives his small prints a visual verve comparable to that of paintings by his contemporary Stuart Davis, who used advertisements in ways that anticipated pop art.
Sekaer's "Restaurant Window, South Carolina," like all of the works in the exhibition, is a black-and-white print no larger than a foot in any direction. The seemingly simple image plays with the juxtaposition of two- and three-dimensional elements: A cartoonish drawing of a steaming cup and saucer decorates a torn and tattered curtain, as does a floral-printed fish-shaped patch. A reflection of the city's architecture can be seen in the glass, adding yet another layer of visual texture.
"Bowling Green, Virginia," also a photo of a window, shows an ornate frame and a graphic advertising 5-cent ice cream cones. By focusing on the graphic, Sekaer transforms an everyday encounter into a subject worthy of artistic treatment — something Andy Warhol would later become famous for with his paintings of soup cans.
"Family Shelling Pecans, Austin, Texas" represents its subjects with quiet respect. Despite their obvious poverty, the three generations of the family do not demand our sympathy. They are focused on the task at hand, which they approach matter-of-factly. Sekaer recorded the ages of the family's members and the amount of work they had to do to earn 30-36 cents a day cracking pecans. His notes reveal the artist's awareness of his subjects' situation, and, in a way, his photograph accords them the dignity denied them by their circumstances.
Although the world Sekaer recorded is long gone, his photographs remain relevant to contemporary life. His interest in the images and texts found on urban walls resonates amid the current local excitement over graffiti and other forms of street and public art, while his portraits of the homeless and impoverished are especially haunting in the context of our own recessionary economy. The High Museum has done well to rescue this artist from obscurity.