Elinor Cahn, “Bingo player, Saint Casimir's Church Hall,” 1979, gelatin silver print, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Transfer from the National Endowment for the Arts, 1983.63.241

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

Baltimore’s neighborhoods have been chronicled by Barry Levinson, John Waters, and David Simon, but the Smithsonian American Art Museum has offered up a genuine time capsule with Welcome Home: A Portrait of East Baltimore, 1975–1980. The exhibition features the work of three women—Elinor Cahn, Joan Clark Netherwood, and Linda Rich—who, in the 1970s, received a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts to photograph the east side neighborhoods of Baltimore. NEA awarded similar grants to photographers across the U.S. in hopes of documenting the times and changing landscapes. Before she died in February, Netherwood, the last surviving photographer of the three, helped organize the first exhibition since the small-scale local showings in the Baltimore project’s immediate aftermath. Now on display at the SAAM, the women’s images capture a time when East Baltimore was comprised of working-class, largely White ethnic neighborhoods. The photos show block parties, corner grocery stores, pubs, bingo halls, hair salons, fish markets, a pool hall run by an ex-boxer, and a dazzling array of living rooms with brassy wallpaper designs. The exhibition also documents the racial differences between today’s East Baltimore and that of the late ’70s. Black people aren’t absent in the images, but they capture a more heterogeneous mix of White, Black, and Brown residents, even though today many of these neighborhoods are predominantly Black. (Immigrants of color are rarely pictured, and the affluent gentrifiers that are common today are absent entirely.) The series features more than its share of elderly subjects, contributing to a sense of future foreboding. In one image, a row of figures moves silently at St. Stanislaus Cemetery under an ominous sky. Even “Annette, Bank Street,” an image of a girl half-hiding behind a door, is adorned by a ghostly handprint. Welcome Home runs through Jan. 17, 2022, at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, 8th and G Streets, NW. americanart.si.edu. Free.

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