Metro Weekly

“Welcome Home” at SAAM captures the neighborhoods of East Baltimore

Edith Massey features among a survey conceived of and carried out by women photographers

Elinor Cahn, Edith Massey, SAAM
Elinor Cahn, Edith Massey, South Broadway. Edith is one of the star performers of John Waters’ films., 1980, gelatin silver print

Edith Massey gained infamy in the 1970s portraying a handful of Baltimore’s most eccentric characters, all drawn from the gloriously demented mind of filmmaker John Waters. These include everything from Massey’s debut as a hallucinatory Virgin Mary in 1970’s Multiple Maniacs to Edie the Egg Lady in Pink Flamingos and the villainous Queen Carlotta in Desperate Living.

In 1975, photographer Elinor Cahn captured Massey, who died in 1984, posing in front of her Fells Point thrift store, Edith’s Shopping Bag. The image is now part of the permanent collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and is currently on display as part of a photographic time capsule from nearly a half-century ago, one capturing the neighborhoods of East Baltimore. (The Baltimore project is just one among more than 70 such community surveys commissioned by the National Endowment for the Arts in 1976 as a bicentennial showcase of the nation.)

“Welcome Home” stands out as the only survey conceived of and carried out by women photographers. Led by Linda Rich in partnership with Joan Clark Netherwood and Cahn, it’s an intimate and insightful snapshot of the city.

“Being women in some ways gave them…access to homes where other people might not have had that easy access,” says the museum’s curator of photography John Jacob in a short video that introduces the exhibition. “What I think of in this body of work is the degree of intimacy between photographers and subjects. And you see that in a way by the photographers participating in the lives of their subjects, but also in the subjects, in a sense performing for the photographers.”

The trio collectively snapped over 10,000 photos in or around East Baltimore, including the neighborhoods of Butchers Hill, Fells Point, and Highlandtown. As evidenced by the 104 photographs on display in the exhibition, the area was notably diverse in the late 1970s, populated by immigrants and their descendants from Germany and Eastern Europe, Italy, Greece, and Korea, as well as Black Americans.

Welcome Home: A Portrait of East Baltimore, 1975-1980 is on display through Jan. 17 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, 8th and G Streets NW. Call 202-633-7970 or visit www.americanart.si.edu.

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