Exhibit’s focus: Photos of London taken in 1938

A barber tends to a customer’s coif in this photo taken in London in 1938 as part of the Farm Security Administration’s photography project documenting American life.
A barber tends to a customer’s coif in this photo taken in London in 1938 as part of the Farm Security Administration’s photography project documenting American life.
This photo of two men sitting outside what was a church where the London Sunoco station is now is among 30 images on display at Gallery on High through September.
This photo of two men sitting outside what was a church where the London Sunoco station is now is among 30 images on display at Gallery on High through September.

(Posted Aug. 25, 2016)

By Kristy Zurbrick, Madison Editor

Gallery On High in London is hosting a unique exhibit that, through black and white photography, captures a day in the life of London residents—specifically Aug. 6, 1938.

The photos are from the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information photograph collection. Between 1935 and 1944, the U.S. government employed several photographers to take photos to create a pictorial record of American life. The resulting collection contains over 175,000 negatives and transparencies.

Initially, the project documented cash loans made to farmers by the Resettlement Administration and construction of suburban communities. The second phase focused on sharecroppers in the South and migratory farm workers in the Midwest and West. The project broadened to cover rural and urban conditions throughout the country, as well as mobilization efforts for World War II.

London resident Bob Rea, a photographer and member of the London Visual Arts Guild, recently learned about the photo collection, London’s inclusion in it, and the fact that the negatives are available for free public use through the Library of Congress.

“Originally, I was going to do an exhibit of my own photography at the gallery, but then I came across these. I think they are a treasure trove,” Rea said.

Several weeks ago, Rea went to work sorting through the dozens of London images in the collection. He chose about 30 to print, matte and frame. All were taken by Ben Shahn or his assistant. Shahn was a Lithuanian born artist who immigrated to the United States with his family when he was 6 years old. He worked part-time on the Farm Security Administration photography project from 1935 to 1938.

On the day Shahn visited London, the local American Legion was hosting a homecoming and street fair. One photo shows young women lined up at a photo booth where pictures were four for 10 cents. Another shows a Legion banner, large Coca Cola coolers, and a ferris wheel. In one, a phrenology booth beckons customers to “come in and get your head read.”

Other images show downtown street scenes. A young woman adjusts a sign at the cream station for Sunlight Creameries. Men in suits and hats and women in dresses walk down the sidewalk, signs overhead advertising businesses such as Chooman’s Restaurant and P. Speasmaker & Sons.

One of Rea’s favorites shows one woman leaning on the open window of a parked car chatting with another woman at the wheel.

Rea said he enjoyed looking for clues in the photos to figure out where in London they were taken. Architecture of buildings offered some of the best clues.

“Honestly, the reflections in the windows are the biggest help,” he said.

One example is a photo taken from outside a barbershop window. Visible is the barber and his customer, but also reflected are the buildings across the street, as well as the photographer.

Rea hopes residents of all ages will visit the gallery to see the exhibit, but especially those who might have some recollection of London from the time period during which the photos were taken—to offer even more clues about the images captured.

“1938” opens Sept. 1 and runs through Oct. 2. A reception is set for 5 to 8 p.m. Sept. 2; refreshments will be served. Gallery On High is located at 5 E. High St., London. Regular hours are: Tuesday, 4-8 p.m.; Thursday, 11 a.m.-2 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m.-2 p.m.; and Sunday, 11 a.m.-2 p.m.

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