Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Three Mormon Towns: Past and Present

photograph by Dorothea Lange, Life, September 6, 1954

Earlier in the year the Rio Gallery in Salt Lake City, in conjunction with the Utah Division of Arts and Museums, presented Three Mormon Towns, a photography exhibit by Mark Finch Hedengren. While this young photographer presented new work, the past crowded around the corners of these gorgeous black and white prints; Mr. Hedengren's project in Three Mormon Towns was a response a photo collection of the same title published in Life magazine in 1954 by perhaps the two of the most influential photographers of the last century: Ansel Adams and Dorothea Lange.

Their photo essay (which can be viewed here) was the product of an ill-fated collaboration: the two artists argued throughout the process, and their final selection of stills was cut significantly before the issue's publication. The result: a feature heavy on photographs and light on text. Aside from Adams' landscape shots, readers could just as easily assume these to be images from any number of locations in rural America. People in the three towns of Gunlock, Toquerville and St. George also recoiled against their portrayal: the small portion of text offered a picture of rural Utah and the Mormon faith that appeared isolated, bitterly difficult and out of step with contemporary life.

Mr. Hedengren returned to these communities 45 years later. He chose to not visit the same exact sites of Adams and Lange's work, but to capture life in these three towns as its exists now. Hedengren, a 29 year-old native of Provo who returned to the area after living in New York City and Europe, found the rural communities to be wholly different through his own aperture. These rural towns, once facing depopulation and dwindling economic resources, have been repopulated, as those earlier perceived detriments of rural life have become selling points. The small farms Adams and Lange found throughout their travels have disappeared; instead affluent families occupy their grounds. As Hendegren notes, these farms now represent historical and material value and no longer function to sustain their inhabitants in any of the old ways. Below are three photographs from the Three Mormon Towns exhibit:

Mr. Hedengren's project was an extension of this work on The Mormons a book of photographs that documented communities within Utah, but also around the world. Included below is a local news report that follows the photographer in the midst of his project.