Thoughts on “Signs of Life” by Peter Sekaer
Peter Sekaer was an objective viewer, yet at the same time you can tell that he was sincerely engaged with the scenes he captured and concerned with the contents of the frame beyond just an aesthetic level. Right away I was struck by Sekaer’s sense of humor and playfulness. One of the first images your eyes are drawn to is a phallic hand-painted ice cream sign from Bowling Green, Virginia in 1935. The next photo is from Canton, Michigan in 1936 and contains a cluttered wall of hanging items that vaguely resemble vaginas. Sekaer had a knack for finding naturally absurd subjects and juxtapositions. A photo of Times Square from 1935 focuses on a statue of a war hero covered by a sheet with many glitzy advertisements and billboards filling the background. He could encapsulate entire personalities and conversations in just one frame. When I looked at these photos, I smirked. Other photos in the collection, however, were not so light-hearted.
The series of photographs depicting slum life are not only powerful in terms of social class and race awareness; they are also excellent showcases of good formal technique. Peter Sekaer is an expert framer of photographs. The rule of thirds is present in almost every single image whether it’s a high angle view of landscape, long shot of a building, or a medium shot of a group of people. Signs often overshadow or loom above people, which alludes to the subjugated way of life experienced by those in the slums. Words as art objects is a main concept in this collection. This is especially the case in a photo from New York in 1934-36: the people are so tiny in comparison to the large painted words, WAREHOUSE, on the building behind them and the dots on the building form an intimidating grid. The photographer achieves a sense of depth in some of the photos by using the street as a diagonal line in the middle of the frame. The view created is one looking down into the building-lined street to the vanishing point.
Even if Sekaer is photographing a seemingly mundane subject such as the front of a building, he frames the edges, lines, windows, etc. in such a way as to bring personality and movement. As a viewer you are not just looking at a café sign, you are looking at a small vignette of that area’s culture. Everything is in deep focus so you can absorb the patterns of the paint and wood grain. The images are all very honest and usually gritty. There are no abstract extreme close-ups in the entire collection. The only photos that are not completely in focus are the few portraits of individuals, in which the backgrounds are left blurry so you are not distracted from the main subject.
Three photographs in the collection stood out from the rest. The first is of a woman in Corpus Christi standing in front of a large black hole that is actually a doorframe. The second image is of a farmer’s upper body reaching out of the pitch-black window hole to turn on a light switch located outside on the barn. The third image is of a man on a vehicle. His face is shaded, and all you can see clearly of him are his muscles. You can, however, read very clearly the sign on the car: “Frederick Snare Corporation.” His identity is lost as he becomes a representative of all laborers everywhere. The use of contrast between pitch black and lighter tones in all three photos causes the viewer to sympathize with the subjects and be proud of them as hard workers who are probably “pulling themselves up from their bootstraps.” If the entire frame were in low-key lighting, these images would be more somber. Instead, the viewer does feel various emotions on behalf of the subjects, but also respects their dignity.
I definitely recommend checking this out. It’s at the International Center for Photography. Bank of America customers get in for free on weekends!