In early 2020, just as the COVID-19 pandemic forced the world into isolation, I was introduced to Joan Clark Netherwood, the last surviving photographer of the East Baltimore Documentary Photography Project (EBDPP). To celebrate the bicentennial of the country’s founding, in 1976 the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) launched a multi-year program supporting photography surveys in communities across the United States. Of the more than seventy projects funded by the NEA, the EBDPP was unique for having been conceived, led, and carried out by women photographers—project leader Linda Rich, Elinor B. Cahn, and Netherwood. A selection of prints from the EBDPP will go on view for the first time at SAAM this July, in the exhibition Welcome Home: A Portrait of East Baltimore, 1975–1980.
Between April and December 2020, I corresponded with Joan by email, and she also consented to a few Zoom conversations after I sent a spare video camera. All communication was carefully and lovingly coordinated by Joan’s husband Paul, from whom I later learned that she wrote all replies to my queries long-hand, and he transcribed them to email. In this strangest of all years, the highlight for me was undoubtedly meeting and corresponding with Joan and Paul. Over the course of our conversations, they dug through old files and storage boxes for records and discovered a complete “community exhibition” of the EBDPP. These were small-scale exhibitions where the photographers showed their progress and their subjects brought pot-luck dinners and stood beside their portraits. The thirty recovered prints were donated to SAAM and are the featured centerpiece of Welcome Home. They also recovered more than 1,000 forgotten transparencies, two sequences of which will be shown in the exhibition. Joan and Paul’s discoveries were transformative. They bring the exhibition to life in a way that the NEA prints alone could not, making an already great exhibition even better.
In late January, I received a note from Paul that brought tears to my eyes. “I have to tell you that Joan is in dire straits,” he wrote. On December 30 she had fallen, and “It does not look as if she will recover enough to come home.” In my enthusiasm for our work on the exhibition, I had not realized that her health was failing. Joan Netherwood passed away on February 8, 2021.
On February 16, in an email entitled “The Year of Photography,” Paul wrote:
I want you to know how much your exhibition meant to Joan and how it made 2020 better for her. She was surprised, delighted and proud to have the EBDPP come back to life. We enjoyed talking and working with you.
This spurred a renaissance of photos in our house. We offered EBDPP photos to our families, and ended up mailing out 40 prints, many matted and many framed. We learned long ago that a loose print often ends up on a shelf. We matted, framed and hung many new photos. It was an ongoing process because she had to be sure that the groupings on any wall were the best possible. The den walls changed many times. The only downside was being asked why we waited so long to hang the pictures. Better Late Than Never. She talked about photos every day.
All in all, they were the best part of her year.
The following are lightly edited excerpts from my correspondence with Joan Clark Netherwood.
On July 3, 2020, I shall be 88 years old and am the only survivor of the three women who created this large collection of photographs. As a result of all the activity, I am enjoying all the memories that are coming back.
Here is one about how the project became a realized program.
Linda [Rich] was so impressed with the “I Am an American Day Parade” that she took her Documentary Class from MICA [Maryland Institute College of Art] to it as a class trip. I was working on my BFA at MICA. At the end of the semester Linda asked Eleanor [Cahn] and myself if we would like to continue photographing in the area. She wrote the proposal for a NEA grant. We got back-to-back grants, the first one for materials and the second one for the book.
I was amazed that three unknown photographers (two of them older women college students) were awarded the grants. We did a lot of fundraising to match those grants. I do not think we could have completed the Survey without the NEA money.
Linda had a clear image of how to run the project. We met once a week to discuss the images taken that week and look at the contact sheets and work prints. We did respond to suggestions. In my first image of Dr. Kunkowski, the x-ray was not illuminated. Linda suggested that I go back and redo the image with the x-ray turned on, and that was the image we used. We did not assign specific types of pictures, because you never knew what you would find on any given day.
I think that because we were women it was easier to get into the homes. One lady asked me in and I told her she should be very careful about who she allowed to come into her home. She assured me that she was a good judge of character and she knew I was O.K. We started by going to the churches, introducing ourselves and letting everyone know what we were doing. Once we had images we gave work prints to everyone we photographed. We built a display stand and put up small exhibits in churches and Senior Citizen Halls.
We had many small exhibitions and a couple of larger ones at City Hall Galleries and at MICA, but nothing as grand as this one. The small shows were successful in showing what we were doing. When one person was photographed and hung in an exhibit, others also wanted to be in the exhibits. When we had a major exhibit, the people photographed stood near their pictures and told anyone who would listen to them what it was like having their picture in an exhibit. They also made all the food for the openings. We even got a review in the food section of the newspaper. We learned that photos would disappear from the exhibit, taken home to show the family, and be returned the next day.
As we became known, people sought us out and invited us to many functions and special events like weddings, baptisms, and first communions. In fact, Mr. Frenchy's obituary covered his experience with the project. In the photo from his 50th wedding re-enactment, he is all scrunched up because a cold coin thrown by a bystander went down the back of his collar. There were also some perks. Not everyone gets to take pictures from a fire engine in a parade, from a tugboat, or from the roof of a brewery.
During our first Zoom conversation Joan said jokingly that she was grateful the pandemic had caused the exhibition to be re-scheduled from a much later date to 2021, so that she might hope to see it. I am sorry that I will not have the opportunity to welcome Joan to SAAM, as she was welcomed into the homes and lives of so many East Baltimoreans, and visit our grand exhibition together.