Between the 1970s and 80s, the economy of the small town of Hartland, Mich. grew due to urban sprawl. To document that growth and its effect on the town and its people were D. James Galbraith and his wife Susan Galbraith. Together they photographed the lives of several residents, revealing both the ups and downs of a small town on the rise.
Susan Galbraith continues the legacy of her and her late husband’s work in the DeVos exhibit titled “Mostly Michigan: The Photography of D. James Galbraith.” Galbraith said she had always been in love with the rural parts of Michigan, which is one of the focuses of this exhibit.
Galbraith inquired as to whether or not Melissa Matuscak, curator of the DeVos Art Museum, would be interested in viewing some of their work for a possible exhibition. Due to time constraints, they met in a parking lot in Galbraith’s hometown of Petoskey. Matuscak looked through the collection in the trunk of Galbraith’s vehicle.
“I saw these photos and said ‘Oh, my gosh. These are incredible. Tell me more.'” Matuscak said.
Matuscak described one of the photographs that stood out to her and what made it so unique. It is titled “Shirley Holliday” and contains the image of a woman sitting on her bed with a teacup.
“She’s got all these antiques, and if you look at the wallpaper and at all the patterns, there’s so much going on in that photo,” Matuscak said. “She’s very proud . . . very proud and very happy.”
After looking through a copy of a book the Galbraiths had published and listening to what exactly “The Hartland Project” is, Matuscak decided to make it an exhibit with Galbraith and herself sharing curator duties.
“It was about the convolution of change with more and more suburbs coming in and the people coming out from the cities,” Galbraith said. “That’s what our book [“Hartland: Change in the Heart of America”] documents, the elements achieved within a rural township when it gets hit with growth and how the people felt about it.”
Galbraith describes the book as a visual journal of what any small town in America could potentially face. Galbraith would like those who view the exhibit to walk away with a better understanding of what people can do within their own town.
“[I hope] they’ll appreciate and honor the richness within their own home and own community,” Galbraith said.
Matuscak said the show is an interesting contrast when compared to today’s harder economic times where business is shrinking, not booming.
“When you listen to the news, it’s about foreclosures, people losing their homes, retail space closing,” Matuscak said. “[The photos] are a completely different conversation than we’re having now.”
According to Matuscak, the exhibit is like a visual history and the images are really strong on their own.
“You see these photos and . it really makes you want to find out more,” Matuscak said. “I think any art that makes you want to know more is successful.”
Although today, Jan. 14, is the exhibit’s opening reception, Matuscak has already had people asking to see the exhibit.
“I think there’s a lot of excitement. I heard someone recognized a person in one of the pictures because [he or she] had grown up in Hartland. It’s a small world,” Matuscak said.
The exhibit has a deeper connection for Matuscak, since she had grown up 30 minutes from Hartland.
“These photos are commenting on a time of change in a small farm town that’s starting to grow,” Matuscak said. “Some people are unhappy about the change.”
With a large amount of photographs to choose from for the exhibit, Matuscak requested the help of photography professor Christine Flavin. Together, the two were able to sort out which photos would go in the show.
“There are many, many images that are wonderfully evocative of the era and of Midwestern people struggling in a small town,” Flavin said. “The challenge was really not to pick them all. It was a pleasure to pick the ones that we did.”
To choose which pictures would make it into the exhibit, Flavin looked for images that were representative of a certain type of genre.
“I looked for images that had the human condition,” Flavin said. “These images revealed the plight or the struggle of the Midwesterner in a small town.”
Flavin expressed enthusiasm over the exhibit as a whole and how it has the power to take the viewer back to a time prior to digital technology.
“It gives us a window into what life was like in the late twentieth century,” Flavin said. “The traditional black and white is a medium that we don’t see very much of these days. There are lots of benefits to have an exhibit like this.”
“Mostly Michigan: The Photography of D. James Galbraith” will be presented through May 16. The reception for this exhibit will take place Jan. 14 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the DeVos Art Museum.