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Coming home to Gee’s Bend

Something about a photograph draws people, even if they don’t know the subjects or the place.

John Reese came to this little place called Gee’s Bend more than 20 years ago because the Birmingham Public Library wanted to see how the folks here lived after 40 years of the first photographic memoir.

The first series of photos chronicled the work of the Farm Service Administration, which compiled a pictorial record of life in the U.S. between 1935 and 1944. Roy E. Stryker, a former economics professor at Columbia University, put together the program. He gathered photographers like Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee and Arthur Rothstein, among others.

These photographers traveled the country in the beginning to document the Resettlement Administration’s cash loans to individual farmers and the agency’s construction of planned suburban communities. Later, the photography program concentrated on southern sharecroppers’ lives and migratory workers in the West and Southwest. A third phase of Stryker’s photograph project focused on rural and urban conditions in the U.S. and mobilization for World War II.

During this program in 1937, Arthur Rothstein came to Gee’s Bend. Here’s what the Library of Congress has to say about Rothstein’s experience at Gee’s Bend: “He found an isolated and primitive community whose speech, habits, and material culture partook of an African origin and an older way of life. Rothstein’s approach showed Gee’s Bend as the “before” in the Agency’s rehabilitation plan. His photos mostly illustrate the “primitive” mood of the place.”

The New York Times picked up Rothstein’s photographs and published a big spread about this “forgotten community.” Rothstein later became a photographer for Look magazine; later director of photography for the magazine until it folded in 1971. Rothstein moved over to Parade Magazine until he died in 1985.

Rothstein died five years after Reese returned to Gee’s Bend to see how it had changed.

The Birmingham Public Library owns the photographs taken by Reese, but a project by the Alabama State Council on the Arts brought 48 of the photographs back to Gee’s Bend.

The folks at Gee’s Bend gathered Saturday to celebrate Reese and those in the photographs who have passed, and those who remain and also remember.