In Exhibitions, Museum of Art

These photographs document an important piece of Utah’s history from the Great Depression to World War II

Photo: Russell Lee

Just over 20 years ago, then-undergraduate James Swensen received a grant to study a collection of photographs taken in Utah by different photographers during the Great Depression and the Second World War. These photographers—Dorothea Lange, Arthur Rothstein, Russell Lee, John Vachon and Andreas Feininger—were sent out West to document what President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal was doing for the badly affected farmers. 

Since that time, Swensen has continued to return to that collection of 200 photographs that show the resilience of the human spirit during crushingly difficult times. Sixty of these carefully curated photographs are now on display at BYU’s Museum of Art as the “Fields of Labor and Recovery” collection.

Swensen, an associate professor of art history at BYU and guest curator for this exhibit, has maintained a strong connection with these photographs since his time as an undergraduate at BYU. “I’ve worked with them enough that it’s like visiting old friends,” Swensen said in an interview. 

Photo: Andreas Feininger

Photographs in the collection on display will include a peek into a Depression-era classroom, a view of a Box Elder County farmhouse with the Wasatch mountains in the background and portraits of the people who lived during an especially turbulent and uncertain time. 

A beautiful homage to the Utah community, the collection showcases not only how difficult these times were for the people living them, but also how good it was to live then. This window into the past will allow visitors to connect with people from a few generations back—perhaps in more ways than one.

Swensen observed that whenever he returns to work on this project, it always seems to resonate with current events. And while the more recent economic hardships in 2008 and 2020 have not fallen so far as they did when the stock market crashed in 1932, they allow us to draw parallels from our current experiences to the experiences of our predecessors.

“Ultimately, they’re not that dissimilar to us,” Swensen noted.

Photo: Dorothea Lange

While working on this project, Swensen met some of the people who are photographed in the collection. One of his favorite pictures from the exhibit is of Christina Hansen Snyder, taken by Dorothea Lange. Snyder was a Danish convert to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints who lived near Bryce Canyon during the Great Depression. In the course of his research, Swensen corresponded with Snyder’s children and grandchildren. This experience made the photographs come to life in a way that they hadn’t before.

More than hardship, this collection of photographs tells a story of recovery. With the Second World War increasing a demand for labor for the war effort, jobs became plentiful once again and the United States as a whole began to recover from the difficult times it experienced for the last decade. In Utah, signs of recovery began to crop up as well. 

Whether a Utah native with a family tree extending generations back in this state or a newly planted resident, the “Fields of Labor and Recovery” exhibit will speak to museum patrons on a distinctly human level.

“Fields of Labor and Recovery” will be on display at the MOA now until November 20. Don’t miss out on this window into Utah’s past!

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