The 1970s, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) conceived a series of photo survey projects, inspired by the epic documentary photography program undertaken by the federal government in the 1930s and 1940s. From 1935 to 1944, the Farm Security Administration (FSA) sent some of the era’s most talented photographers on a mission to capture rural poverty during the Great Depression.
In 1974, No Mountains in the Way Jim Enyeart, then curator of photography at the University of Kansas Museum of Art, and Kansas natives Terry Evans and Larry Schwarm travelled the state, photographing whatever struck them as representative. Each worked on an assigned theme. Enyeart focused on buildings, Evans on people, and Schwarm on the landscape. Their collective visions combined to poetically reflect place, culture, and custom in Kansas. The exhibition and catalogue were presented in 1975.
No Mountains in the Way was the prototype for a larger, national survey initiated by the NEA during the American Bicentennial celebration. From 1976 to 1981, the agency awarded Documentary Survey grants to more than 100 regional photographers. Following the model of No Mountains in the Way, they documented communities across the United States.
Forty years later, No Mountains in the Way remains an important document of American photography. It is the record of a particular American place. The current installation of 63 vintage prints from this survey of 120 photographs, are all works from the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s permanent collection.
Whether you go or not, Bust to Boom: Documentary Photographs of Kansas, 1936-1949 brings together a diverse array of photographs representative of the epic documentary photography that inspired the No Mountains in the Way project. This is a unique visual record of American life by photographers Arthur Rothstein, John Vachon, Russell Lee, Marion Post Wolcott, Jack Delano, Edwin and Louise Rosskam, and Charles Rotkin. Collectively, their work has immortalized the faces and emotions of FSA-aided farmers and the harsh lives of coal miners, dust-bowl debris and tumbleweeds, a failed bank and a thriving stockyard, locomotives and Mexican-American railroad workers, oil derricks, wheat country, black cavalry troops, and 4-H Club fairs.