Edward Steichen’s The Bitter Years Meets Stephen Gill’s Contemporary Photography

The Centre National de l’audiovisuel in Luxembourg (CNA) is opening a major new space dedicated to photography.

On 29 September 2012 the centre will launch Waassertuerm + Pomhouse, featuring two exhibition galleries created in the unusual setting of an industrial water tower (Waassertuerm) and its adjacent pumping station (Pomhouse) as part of the CNA extension project on the grounds of a neighbouring  former steel plant.

The industrial site of Dudelange at the end of the twenties, Archives de la Ville de Dudelange

The industrial site of Dudelange at the end of the twenties, Archives de la Ville de Dudelange

The water tower, with its stunning circular gallery, will become the permanent home of Edward Steichen’s exhibition The Bitter Years 1935-1941, curated in 1962 for the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York with a selection of images from the Farm Security Administration.

Arthur Rothstein : Farmer and sons walking in the face of a dust storm. Cimarron County, Oklahoma, April 1936.

Arthur Rothstein : Farmer and sons walking in the face of a dust storm. Cimarron County, Oklahoma, April 1936.

In the context of labour and migration, in the town of Dudelange, one of Luxembourg’s historic industrial centres, The Bitter Years, with its compelling view of rural America during the Great Depression, will acquire new meaning. Fifty years after its first viewing at MoMA, the historic collection provides the corner stone for reflections about contemporary image making, and Pomhouse, the handsomely renovated former pumping station, offers the framework for an ongoing dialogue between past and present interpretations of the ever evolving medium of photography.

Pomhouse will put on a range of temporary exhibitions, the first of which will be Coexistence, a site-specific work by British contemporary artist Stephen Gill. Gill’s work will provide a poetic reflection upon the changing region and city.

Together, Waassertuerm and Pomhouse offer an important new platform for photography.

Centre national de l’audiovisuel (CNA) 1b, rue du Centenaire, L-3475 Dudelange



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Dorothea Lange, 1936

Dorothea Lange, 1936

The Bitter Years is the last exhibition Edward Steichen curated in 1962 as director of the photography department of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. A tribute to documentary photography, the show featured more than 200 images from one of the greatest collective projects in the history of photography: the documentation of rural America during the Great Depression by the Farm Security Administration (FSA). From 1935 to 1943, under the direction of Roy Stryker, a group of now highly acclaimed photographers, such as Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee or Arthur Rothstein, travelled the length and breadth of their country to create a shattering collection of images depicting America in crisis. The result of this government commission, which aimed to support F. D. Roosevelt’s New Deal policy, was more than 200,000 negatives. Today these negatives are housed at the Library of Congress and are part of the American collective memory. Steichen himself considered the images “the most remarkable human documents ever rendered in pictures”. In 1967, he organised the donation of The Bitter Years to the state of Luxembourg, one year after the donation of the successful exhibition The Family of Man. Fifty years after its exhibition at the MoMA, The Bitter Years is once again open to the public. The images have lost none of their power and remain arresting records of the human condition.

Stephen Gill
Gill immersed himself in the microscopic universe of the cooling ponds. He meticulously and patiently explored the abandoned terrain. After six weeks of intense interaction with the site and the local population, Stephen Gill created a body of work that tells many stories. Coexistence ultimately seeks to draw parallels between the microscopic life of the ponds and the individual beings making up our society.

Stephen Gill

Stephen Gill

”The University of Luxembourg kindly taught me to use one of their medical microscopes so that I was able to study single drops of the water, and I began searching the pond for diatoms and other minuscule creatures and plant life. The more I thought about the human factor that was so essential to the series forming in my head, the more I wanted to involve local people from the small town of Dudelange, which has a substantial community of families with Portuguese and Italian origins. Many of these people used to work in the steelmaking industry. For health and safety reasons it was not possible to invite people to come to the cooling ponds, so I decided instead to take the pond to the people. I filled a bucket with water from the pond, and dipped my underwater camera into this pond water prior to making portraits of the Dudelange residents. Later on I also dipped the prints into the pond itself, so microscopic life was also transferred onto the surface of the paper.”

Pond tip: to maintain a healthy pond, pH must be kept in the range of 6.5 to 8.5, and nitrate must be kept at zero.


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