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Museum unveils 'hidden gem' in Depression-era photos by Sekaer

By Helena de Moura, CNN
  • Exhibit contains 87 of Peter Sekaer's Depression-era photos
  • His "genuine compassion and curiosity" comes through, curator says
  • The resilience of American rural workers is revealed
  • Photos will be at Atlanta's High Museum of Art until January 9

Atlanta, Georgia (CNN) -- During the Great Depression, the United States government sent Danish-born photographer Peter Sekaer on a mission through America's back roads to chronicle the lives of ordinary Americans as they struggled through one of the most challenging periods in U.S. history.

Now, for the first time, Sekaer's telling odyssey through America is available to the public after years in obscurity. The 87 vintage gelatin silver prints are in an Atlanta High Museum exhibit called "Signs of Life: Photographs by Peter Sekaer," which will be on view from now until January 9, 2011.

Julian Cox, photography curator of the museum, said Sekaer's work is an important discovery.

"We really believe that we have uncovered a hidden gem in the work of Peter Sekaer," he said. "What sets him apart is the warmth and humanity with which he approached his subjects. He was keenly interested in them as people and that genuine compassion and curiosity is fully evident in the photographs."

Many of these photographs were taken while Sekaer was commissioned by government agencies such as the Rural Electrification Administration and the U.S. Housing Authority.

This exhibit allows a new peek into the resilience of American rural workers during the Great Depression, and the vitality of small communities as they struggled through hard times.

Sekaer's quest as a photo-documentary artist, his intimate portraits of farmers, fishermen, hotel workers and prostitutes also recall a unique time in the U.S. government, when politicians and policy makers relied on artists such as Sekaer not only to document the highways and byways of the country but also to lift the national morale through the Public Works of Art Project, a program that employed artists during the Great Depression.

It was an investment that bore results, bringing opportunities to great photographers, including Sekaer and contemporaries such as Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange, to preserve and make history.

"You might say that his stance was that of an artist/anthropologist who, with frank insight and humanity, delighted in recording the artifacts and gestures that defined American culture," said Cox.

"Sekaer's photographs show an outsider's objectivity and detachment coupled with an insider's commitment and concern for the subject," he said.