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WASHINGTON, DC — Kansas is characterized as much by its skies as its ground, with clouds sweeping over the fields and towns that dot the heart of the Great Plains. In 1974, three area photographers — James L. Enyeart, Terry Evans, and Larry W. Schwarm — captured the architecture, people, and landscapes of their state as part of the Kansas Documentary Survey Project. In almost every image, from a portrait of a steadfast farmer to a towering grain silo, that sky is present, filling the frame with its billowy formations or drawing long shadows with the sun on the landscapes below.
No Mountains in the Way: Photographs from the Kansas Documentary Survey, 1974, currently on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC, features 63 vintage prints from the Kansas project, selected from the museum’s collection (you can view all 120 of them online). The exhibition follows a show last year at the Wichita Art Museum that marked the 40th anniversary of the project’s first display, in 1975.
James L. Enyeart, who in 1974 was the curator of photography at the University of Kansas Museum of Art, spearheaded the Kansas Documentary Survey Project with the support of a modest $5,000 National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) grant. Inspired by the Depression-era photographs from the Farm Security Administration (FSA), he wanted to create a composite portrait of the state. Rather than follow a social issue like poverty or worker conditions, the photographers would concentrate on broad themes.
Evans turned her camera on the people, shooting from the hip to capture figures like a weathered and majestic farmer named Roy, his face set in determination beneath his straw hat; an Amish Mennonite couple posed before some scrappy foliage; and a stoic girl crouched barefoot in the shade of a tree. Enyeart focused on vernacular architecture: hand-painted signs, a goliath arched window almost consuming a whole house in Sparks, homemade shutters that appear from a distance like Art Deco accents on an otherwise mundane building. Schwarm’s photographs are the most unique, drawing out patterns particular to the region, like a field of limestone rocks contrasting with a neatly plowed field; an outdoor barbed wire collection in Ottawa County that echoed the shape of a haystack; and icons like the cow on a billboard, a traffic sign, and in the flesh, roaming a field in Kiowa County.
With projects like this one and the Environmental Protection Agency’s dispatch of 70 photographers across the US to visualize environmental concerns, the 1970s saw a return to the kind of documentary photography that immortalized the Great Depression. The Kansas endeavor in particular inspired the NEA to launch a series of regional documentary projects from 1976 to 1981. In his 2005 book Through the Lens of the City: NEA Photography Surveys of the 1970s, Mark Rice wrote that Enyeart’s “Kansas survey served as the most direct model for what became the regular Photographer Surveys category of the NEA.”
In three galleries of the American Art Museum, each photographer’s work presents a black-and-white slice of the heartland, an “even greater sense of Kansas,” as Enyeart put it, through their distinct perspectives.
No Mountains in the Way: Photographs from the Kansas Documentary Survey, 1974 continues at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (800 G Street NW, Washington, DC) through July 31.