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At the Smithsonian, a photographic portrait of East Baltimore, decades before the dawn of the selfie era

Nan Cotrelle Coiffeurs, in Canton, a few days before Easter (i979). Photo by Joan Clark Netherwood. (Smithsonian American Art Museum/Transfer from the National Endowment for the Arts)
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More than four decades ago, when photographer Linda Rich was planning the East Baltimore Documentary Photography Project — an initiative, ultimately funded by the National Endowment for the Artsshe understood something about our contemporary compulsion to take and share photos of ourselves. Rather than simply treating locals as her subjects, she would bring them into the process. She would host local exhibitions of the photographs as they were taken, with the hope that the images would instill pride in the community by reflecting back the richness of people’s own lives. Long before the days of sharing minutiae on social media, Rich knew how seeing the familiar from a photographic distance can heighten our surroundings and imbue routines with new meaning.

Today, with cameras in our pockets and a universe of images at our fingertips, it’s easy to take the power of photographic representation for granted. Looking at ourselves through an external lens is practically the default mode of seeing the world in 2021. But in 1975, when Rich and two of her students at the Maryland Institute College of Art, Joan Clark Netherwood and Elinor Cahn, set out to capture the denizens of East Baltimore, photography was not as ubiquitous. By creating thousands of images of the place — 104 of which are now on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in “Welcome Home: A Portrait of East Baltimore, 1975-1980,” they gave the community a mirror it didn’t have before.

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The project was part of a larger national photographic initiative led by the U.S. government to celebrate the nation’s bicentennial. At the time, the country was emerging from a recession, and Walter Mondale (a senator, soon to become vice president), proposed the photo surveys — which would take place in 70 communities around the United States — as a way to boost morale. In such a context, the idea can seem like propaganda.

But in the hands of Rich, Netherwood and Cahn, the East Baltimore project wasn’t about creating a patriotic news release. It was an effort to convey the morals and values of the East Baltimore community through images. It was documentary photography not for an external audience, but for the people documented.

The photographers aimed to represent the community the way it would represent itself. They immersed themselves in the tightknit neighborhoods of East Baltimore — Fell’s Point, Patterson Park, Little Italy, Butcher’s Hill, Canton and others home largely to European immigrants of Polish, Ukrainian, Italian and Greek descent. It was a different Baltimore than we know today.

To get to know the community, the photographers attended baptisms, funerals and weddings. They befriended local business owners and gained the trust of row-home renovators and longtime residents alike — many of whom opened their houses to be photographed. They saw civic pride on display at such events as the annual “I am An American Day” parade and captured personal faith in photos of living rooms shrines.

Throughout the five years they spent documenting these neighborhoods, each community exhibit drew hundreds of visitors. Locals would bring home-cooked food, and subjects would stand near their portraits, often raving about the experience. The obituary for Peter Frenchy — whom you can find teary-eyedin a photo taken after renewing his wedding vows — described his participation in the project as the highlight of his life.

It can be easy to dismiss some of these pictures. Especially in the later images, some, at first, appear as banal as a stranger’s family photo album. The key to — and the joy of — the exhibition is viewing the photos through the eyes of their subjects.

Put yourself in the shoes of the restaurant owner in Cahn’s 1978 photo “Chris’ Carry Out, Montford Avenue.” Imagine the daily grime and grind of operating a crab shop, and then seeing a gallery display of your image, standing over your signature steamed crabs as if presiding over the rolling hills of a crustacean kingdom.

These photos show viewers what the subjects want you to see. One wall text even refers to the photographers and subjects as “co-conspirators.” But if you know that the subject is performing an ideal, you can start to see where it cracks, where the truth slips through.

In a photo from Foster Street in Canton, an elderly lady with rollers in her hair glares from her doorstep — in contrast to the friendly cat figurines cluttering her window. In another image, a manufacturing plant operator takes the pose of Auguste Rodin’s “The Thinker,” casting himself as the mind of the machine behind him.

Some photos in the exhibition show the community in the midst of crafting its image. A photo from the “I Am an American Day” parade depicts a woman on the sidewalk with a broom, and a caption notes that cleanup often started before the event even ended. In a photo from Canton, a woman wields a gardening hose like a gun, shooting a long stream of water out of her basement window to scour the street. An overhead shot of rowhouses shows glistening white marble stoops — neighbors competed to keep theirs the cleanest.

An anxiety bubbles beneath the surface of such photos. They depict a wariness of anything — or anyone — who will make the community unclean, tarnish its image.

From a polished stoop in East Baltimore to a perfectly filtered Instagram photo, there is danger and power to the images we craft of ourselves. They steal us from the complications of reality — all while creating the illusion that we can control it.

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Welcome Home: A Portrait of East Baltimore, 1975-1980

Smithsonian American Art Museum, Eighth and G streets NW. americanart.si.edu.

Dates: Through Jan. 17.

Prices: Free.

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