Outside Looking In: Peter Sakear
Photographs for the United States Housing Authority, 1938 - 1939.
In 1937, during the height of the Great Depression, the United States Congress passed the Wagner-Steagall bill, establishing the United States Housing Authority (USHA), with the lofty goal to provide affordable and modern housing for low-income and homeless citizens. When the Danish-born photographer Peter Sekaer began working for the newly established USHA in 1938, he already had the experience of photographing impoverished and working-class neighborhoods and their residents throughout the Southeastern United States while travelling with his friend photographer Walker Evans, who was on assignment for the Resettlement Administration. Sekaer's directive with the USHA was to document slum areas in need of redevelopment and later, the newly-built housing projects created to replace these slums. In either instance, Sekaer usually chose to focus on the presence of the inhabitants, with the structures and neighborhoods serving as backdrops to the human drama recorded, with empathy, in his photographs.
In an article on Sekaer's USHA photographs, published in the November 17, 1940 issue of PM's Weekly, Ralph Steiner wrote:
Although Sekaer's pictures show strongly the need for decent housing, they all show that in spite of depressing surroundings people are full of the lust for life. If pictures don't make you feel strongly about the people in them, you won't care too much about the way they live. Many documentary photographers make you feel that it's not worth while doing anything about the situation. Sekaer's pictures are a call to action.
All photographs are original, unmounted, unsigned gelatin silver prints made during 1938–1939. Most bear USHA stamps, titles, and captions on the print back. The majority of these prints are from the estate of Julian Berla, an MIT and Bauhaus trained architect who was a proponent for and designer of public housing while employed by the Resettlement Administration and later as a consultant to USHA. Apparently Berla also became a personal friend of Peter Sekaer. During the early 1950s Julian Berla worked in Denmark as a consultant on public housing for the Danish Building Ministry.
A major retrospective exhibiton, Signs of Life: Photographs by Peter Sekaer, is currently on display at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. An extensive monograph of the same title, has also been published by the High Museum of Art and Steidl.