New Orleans. In the collection of the Peter Sekear Estate.

Actually, Jacob Holdt was the new Peter Sekaer … we just never knew about Sekaer. Until now.

Sekaer

The New York Times reported today on Signs of Life at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, a major survey of Peter Sekaer’s life and of his works. Sekaer died prematurely in 1950 at the age of 49, leaving stacks of unsorted photographs.

Curator, Julian Cox said of his work, “We wanted to uncover this hidden gem. Sekaer was like the passage of a meteor, very bright but fairly brief.”

Sekaer often took photographic trips with friend Walker Evans. Sekaer photographed high streets, impoverished neighbourhoods, markets and games. He photographed signs and billboards. From 1936-43 he worked on assignment for various government agencies including the FSA, the USHA and the REA. His task was to document the depressed country and thus Seaker photographed a lot of poor Americans.

Excepting the New Deal agencies, this focus and unexpected coverage was repeated 40 years later by another Dane.

Jacob Holdt‘s ongoing life’s work American Pictures* is equally committed to describing the hardships of the American South. Holdt met many people suffering in a discriminatory culture with discriminatory laws. (I wrote about Holdt following his autobiographical presentation at the 2009 New York Photography Festival.

Holdt (b.1947) is the geist of Sekaer.

It should be noted Holdt doesn’t call himself a photographer, rather a man who uses the camera as a tool in his activism. Sekaer was professional from 1936 onward.

DANISH INQUISITION

It would be foolish to attribute their curiosity and achievements to their Danish heritage, or to suggest that foreign eyes can see with more clarity the shortcomings of their host nation. Sekaer and Holdt likely were/are simply good people with a belief in stories to be told.

Sekaer was an anomaly for his time; an outspoken, moody Dane, with a German camera, asking folk about their lives. Sekaer’s daughter, Christina explains that it wasn’t just his eyes that made his photographs, Sekaer’s voice did too, “His accent helped people want to talk to him.”

Sixty years on, it’s nice to meet you Mr. Sekaer.

More images here.

Peter Sekaer (American, born Denmark, 1901–1950)

Born in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 1901, Peter Sekaer immigrated to the United States in 1918 at the age of seventeen. After successfully operating a printing business in New York City producing posters, advertisements and window displays, he enrolled in the Art Students League in 1929 to study painting. He soon became involved in the New York art scene, befriending, among others, the artist Ben Shahn and the photographer Walker Evans.

By 1934 Sekaer had left painting behind to study photography with Berenice Abbott at the New School for Social Research. Through his friendship with Walker Evans he secured contracts from 1936 to 1943 to work on assignment as a photographer for various government agencies that were created as part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal program. In 1945 Sekaer started his own commercial photography business, shooting advertisements and human interest stories for magazines.

In 1950, at age forty-nine, Sekaer suffered a fatal heart attack. His life’s work has been preserved by his wife, Elisabeth Sekaer Rothschild, and their younger daughter, Christina Sekaer.

'Family Shelling Pecans, Austin, Texas', 1939. G Peter Sekaer. Collection of the High Art Museum, Atlanta. Purchased with funds from Robert Yellowlees.

Signs of Life: Photographs by Peter Sekaer is the first major exhibition dedicated to the work of the Danish-born American photographer Peter Sekaer. Organized by the High, the exhibition runs June 5, 2010 through January 11, 2011. High Museum of Art, 1280 Peachtree Street, N.E. Atlanta, Georgia 30309.

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*Conflating Holdt and Sekaer further, a 1999 exhibition at the Addison Gallery of American Art was titled ‘Peter Sekaer: American Pictures’. I don’t know if the curators knew of Holdt’s body of work.