Many Nations, Indivisible

The Center for Creative Photography chronicles community crusaders.

In a desperate neighborhood of North Philadelphia, where public housing apartments loom over crumbling red-brick rowhouses, where weeds and drug dealers alike thrive in scraggly empty lots strewn with glass, colorful angels rise up unexpectedly on the wall of a house, their bits and pieces of colored mosaic coalescing into art of surpassing beauty.

Up on the wide-open Navajo lands in northern Arizona and New Mexico, churro sheep once again roam, their wool providing the raw materials for rugs woven by local women, their bodies contributing mutton for dinner tables.

And down Mexico way, on the Texas side of the Rio Grande, where migrant workers have lived for years in colonias--Third World hovels on USA soil, shanties without running water or sewers--families are banding together to build sturdy, safe little houses.

The groups responsible for these small-scale improvements, the Village of Arts and Humanities in Philadelphia; Proyecto Azteca in San Juan, Texas; and Diné bí'íína, Inc.-Navajo Lifeways in the Navajo Nation, are just three of a dozen worthy efforts profiled in the ambitious new exhibition Indivisible: Stories of American Community at the Center for Creative Photography. Almost 200 photographs on view document citizen initiatives nationwide, chronicling everything from the struggles of Alaskan fishing people to deal with a diminishing supply of fish, to efforts of midwives and doulas in New York to help new families get off to a good start by compassionately accompanying women through childbirth.

Twelve prominent photographers, including Danny Lyons and Debbie Fleming Caffery, were commissioned to fan out to selected communities across the country to document not only these hardworking people but the places where they undertake their labors. Thus Reagan Louie, a Chinese-American from San Francisco, was dispatched to the alien terrain of Philadelphia to document an impressive effort to use art to turn around a decaying neighborhood. And he did, wonderfully, in pictures pungently colored by the city's red brick houses and wintry blue skies.

In one, artist Lily Yeh, a Chinese native who founded the Village project, stands in one of the empty lots she and community residents have defiantly turned into an art park. Beyond her little enclave, the desperate neighborhood unfurls in brick and asphalt.

The photographers' visual images are complemented in turn by oral interviews visitors can listen to on audio handsets. Some of these taped tracks are works of art in themselves. Folklorist Jens Lund recorded the seaside sounds of waves and bells in Alaska, and folklorist and radio producer Jack Loeffler captured people singing and speaking in the Navajo language, their voices punctuated by the baa-ing of sheep. You can listen to these melodic voices talking about the "spirit of the sheep" while you look at Lucy Capehart's fine color photos, of a female Navajo elder, of sheep paddocks, of the ordinary household objects lovingly arrayed in a Navajo home.

A joint project of the Center for Creative Photography and the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, Indivisible also includes an interactive computer where visitors can describe their own community projects as well as a companion postcard show that will be in the Tucson Mall and Tucson International Airport during the exhibition's local stay. A book, Local Heroes Changing America, includes the interview texts and photos. Trudy Wilner Stack, the Center's curator of exhibitions, collaborated on the gigantic Indivisible project with Tom Rankin of Duke, but it was she who selected the images for the show from among the 50 that each photographer submitted.

The project came about, she said, when the Pew Charitable Trust sought to celebrate the kind of community efforts that it typically gives grants to. Pew tapped Wilner Stack for initial advice, and she ended up becoming a principal player, helping select the photographers as well as the communities to be documented. And she came up with the title Indivisible, inspired by the phrase "one nation, indivisible" in the Pledge of Allegiance.

"It makes you go back to the early civics that we're taught," she said. "It has to do with the notion of interdependency, that a community won't succeed unless people cooperate."

Once the exhibition completes its travels to museums around the country in 2003, Wilner Stack said that the Center will benefit by becoming the repository for the photographs and the interviews. (Duke will also get a set, and each of the local initiatives will get the materials on their own communities.)

The project gave the Center the opportunity to step out of what can be a confining art niche, and dip into the promotion of social good. But as a cross between an art exhibition and a documentary, Indivisible on occasion fails on both counts. Some of the photographs, while evocative and lovely, tell us very little about the community project at hand, while other pictures never rise above the level of journalism.

A black-and-white portrait of Rhett Anders in Eau Claire, S.C., by Eli Reed falls into the former category. A historic antebellum house in poor repair, framed by dark trees, takes up most of the space; Anders is almost unnoticed dragging on a cigarette front and center. Reed has made a wonderful picture that evokes the South both old and new, but it's a stand-alone image that tells us virtually nothing abut the town's good-hearted effort to ease racism. For that the visitor must listen to the tapes.

In fact, the show places unusual demands on viewers: They simply must put in the time to take it all in, to look at so many pictures, listen to so many voices. But Indivisible is worth careful attention. It may be a cliché, but it's hard to avoid calling this fascinating show a portrait of America. The photographers remind us once again how variegated is our land, how complex our people, and how different and related our problems.

The great green forest of the Northwest comes pungently alive in Terry Evans' color pictures, including one standout of a logger family gathered around a fire in a clearing by their house, surrounded on all sides by a solid wall of trees. The cold waters of the North Pacific are etched in black and white in Lynn Davis' triptychs. Joan Lifton essays the torpid heat of Florida in her black-and-white pictures of Haitian immigrants. One of her best is a light-filled portrait of a husband and wife in a provocatively divided space: The woman is on the porch, the man in bed, and the dense Florida vegetation blooms indoors and out.

Caffery takes in the rolling North Carolina mountains in her documentation of an effort at small-town revival. In one, an old farmer with gnarled hands passes precious bean seeds into the smooth hands of a younger man. And on the Fourth of July, 1999, an old country man holds aloft an American flag against the fertile backdrop of the Carolina hills.

And Danny Lyons, who memorably recorded some of the finest images of the civil rights movement, here once again finds the extraordinary in the ordinary. Aristeo Orta, building a house in the depressed Texas borderlands, is rendered monumental in Lyons' picture, a carpenter who's a local hero, doing what he can to raise high the roofbeams for his neighbors.

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