From 1976-1981, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) sponsored a program of photography surveys in communities across the United States to celebrate the bicentennial of the country’s founding. These surveys created a new visual record of a changing nation. Survey projects included preserving or working with historical collections; however, most were commissions of new work by an emerging generation of documentarians, many of whom became prominent figures of American photography. Of the more than seventy projects funded by the NEA, the East Baltimore Survey was unique for having been conceived, led, and carried out by women photographers—Elinor Cahn, Joan Clark Netherwood, and Linda Rich. With significant support from the community, it was also one of the most highly acclaimed at a national level.
Project leader Linda Rich wrote before beginning the survey that “Today, while many urban communities seem to be fighting a losing battle against physical, emotional, and spiritual decay, East Baltimore continues to grow and change, preserving its culture, integrity, and humanity.” Rich, Netherwood and Cahn, photographed a cross-section of East Baltimore residents and businesses, celebrating the community’s history and diversity. They approached local clergy, and were invited to attend bingo luncheons, exercise classes, first communions, and sauerbraten suppers. In time, they were welcomed into the homes and private lives of the residents of East Baltimore. The tension between ethnicity and Americanness was a sustained theme of the survey, as was acknowledgement of residents’ fight for their community’s survival, insisting on basic social services and successfully defending against efforts to divide its neighborhoods.
The ninety works on view in the exhibition are drawn from the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s collection. In 1983, 1,500 photographs by NEA grant recipients were transferred to SAAM, effectively establishing the museum’s photography collection. A second transfer of 500 photographs took place in 2010. Thirteen of the completed photography surveys were among the photographs received by SAAM. The documentary survey photographs are among the important collections of works created by American artists under the support of the federal government including the Federal Arts Projects of the Works Progress Administration created during the 1930s and ‘40s, and the Art and Architecture program of the General Services Administration from the 1970s. I Am an American: Photographs from the East Baltimore Documentary Survey will be the first time the photographs will be on display at SAAM. John Jacob, the McEvoy Family Curator for Photography, organized the exhibition.