Un-Review of Dayton Art Institute’s 1913 Flood Exhibition

[I hate the term “review.” It has this overtone, like if you’re not sufficiently critical, you haven’t really “reviewed” the thing. So this is not a review in that sense. It’s “I experience this super-cool thing, and I want to share it with you,” whatever that’s called.]

Last Thursday, February 21, was a busy but fun day for me. After the Miami Valley Archives Roundtable meeting, I was fortunate enough to have been invited to attend a special preview of the Dayton Art Institute‘s new exhibition commemorating the centennial of the Great 1913 Flood: Storm, Watershed, & Riverbank.

Dayton Art Institute

Dayton Art Institute

Dayton Art Institute - Storm--Watershed--Riverbank

Dayton Art Institute – Storm–Watershed–Riverbank

(The 1913 Flood was a defining moment in the Miami Valley’s history. It was a horrible disaster, but it ultimately led to flood control measures that have successfully averted such a thing happening again: the creation of the Miami Conservancy District. To learn more about the flood, check out 1913flood.com or even Wikipedia for a basic overview.)

The exhibition consists of three parts:

  • Storm: Paintings by April Gornik
  • Watershed: 100 Years of Photography Along the Great Miami River
  • Riverbank: Exploring Our River-Centered Development

Storm: Paintings by April Gornik, consisted of several large scale (we’re talking LARGE scale, like 6 feet by 8 feet!) paintings depicting various kinds of storms, weather, and other natural waters. They were really beautiful. You can see many of April’s paintings on her web site, although my favorite one from the exhibit, “Light Passing” (1987), doesn’t seem to be on there.

After a transitional area showing three enlarged lantern slide views of the flood, as well as a Baltimore & Ohio Railroad map with notations about flood damage, we embarked upon the second part of the exhibition: Watershed: 100 Years of Photography Along the Great Miami River.

The Watershed exhibit consists of “before” and “after” photographs showing a scene from the flood, paired with a recent photograph taken at the same location and angle. The photos showed scenes from Piqua all the way down the Great Miami River to Hamilton.

The “before” photographs had been gathered, enlarged, and reproduced from the collections of many Miami Valley archival repositories, including Wright State University Special Collections & Archives, Dayton Metro Library, and many others. (I gleefully recognized many of the Dayton photos!)

The “after” photographs were created by Dayton photographer Andy Snow, who created more than 5,000 digital files for this project.

Andy Snow

Photographer Andy Snow giving us insights to help us more fully appreciate his photos.

Mr. Snow was present on the tour to share his insights about the photos and the project. He shared lots of interesting stories and pointed out details that helped us more fully appreciate what we were seeing. He told us that he manipulated some of the photos slightly in order to make them “pop and sing,” saying, “I like singing photographs.” :-)  He also gave us some historical context, including a lesson in historical photography equipment (examples of which is included in the exhibit) and the reasons why in old photos, the sky looks gray. He also referred to Dayton as “the Silicon Valley of the time,” in explaining why its destruction was such major nationwide news.

Angela Manuszak of the Miami Conservancy District, who was integral to the project, was also present on the tour and also gave us great historical context to help us better understand and appreciate what we were seeing.

Angela Manuszak

Angela Manuszak of Miami Conservancy District sharing snipptes of the flood story to help give us context.

For instance, she pointed out that there are no known photographs of the river’s cresting in Dayton because it happened in the middle of the night. She also said that the Miami Conservancy District was the largest privately-funded infrastructure project in the world at the time; it was designed to protect against a flood equivalent to 140% of what the 191 3 flood was! (And it has worked!)

Here are a few pictures to give you a taste of the Watershed exhibit. (And I apologize that these are not the greatest — I’m no professional photographer, and my little pocket camera can’t even begin to do these things justice anyway. That’s why it’s really just a taste, even of these very photos, because the real ones look so much more amazing. Oh and also – Mr. Snow said it was OK for us to take pictures! Plus, I like to think I’ll make you want to visit and see the rest, if I show you a few ideas of what you’ll find.)

Dayton Before and After the Flood

Before and After view from the hill where Dayton Art Institute is today. (Yes, it’s blurry; it’s not your eyes.) This pair was just awesome. You’ve got to see it!

lantern slides

Some of the 72 original hand-tinted lantern slides on exhibit from the Miami Conservancy District’s collection.

Everett Neukom's Beaver Power Building photo

Everett Neukom’s Beaver Power Building photo (This was one of my favorite pairs, too, because I recognized the photo on the right immediately as one taken by Everett Neukom- it came from our Neukom collection at WSU.)

Near the end of the Watershed exhibit, there was a sitting area with the chairs pointed at a large flat-screen TV that was showing the Before/After photos fading into one another. I almost walked right by it, thinking, “Oh, I’ve seen this,” but after my brief conversation with Mr. Snow, he encouraged me to check it out, that it gave a little different perspective on the photos. And it really did: in some cases the photos were framed so perfectly that when the Before faded into the After, certain details that existed in both photos (like a church steeple, for instance) were lined up perfectly. It was almost like that part of the photo was simply turning color and having its surroundings changed, while it remained the same. VERY COOL. Thanks, Mr. Snow, for encouraging me to take a second look at that– it really was worth it. Plus, hey, it gave me an excuse to sit for a minute.

Also in talking to Mr. Snow, I asked if these were the same photos that will be featured in the 1913 Flood before/after book that I’ve been hearing about — the real title of which I couldn’t remember at the time, but which is, for your information A Flood of Memories–One Hundred Years After the Flood: Images from 1913 and Today. The answer was, yes, but only about 1/2 the images in the book were featured in the exhibit. So there’s MORE. Yay!  He said the book should soon be available for sale in the book stores at Dayton Art Institute and Carillon Park (which incidentally also has a new permanent exhibit on the 1913 Flood opening March 23).

The third part of the exhibition, Riverbank: Exploring Our River-Centered Development, had maps and sketches and sallelite images showing the development of the Great Miami River corridor over the years. The giant satellite map was pretty awesome. And I also enjoyed seeing a publication from the 1960s of proposed development of the river area near where Sinclair currently is– apparently, they wanted to put some kind of stadium or theater there at one point. (It’s always fun to see those architects’ or city planners’ renderings of proposed building projects from Back in the Day that never quite came to pass, knowing what’s there now.) There was also an interactive component with a big map of downtown Dayton and an invitation to answer the question “What would entice you to spend the day on the river?” on a Post-It Note and stick it to the map. (I admit I didn’t do this part; I was already late for a reception I was supposed to be attending upstairs, because I just couldn’t tear myself away from the photos…)

The Storm, Watershed, & Riverbank exhibition runs February 23 through May 5, 2013, and museum admission is $12. If you are interested in a visual history of the 1913 Flood, you don’t want to miss this. It was absolutely amazing.

[In addition to the official exhibition info on the Dayton Art Institute site, you might also be interested in this article from the Dayton Daily News: “Dayton Art Museum to Commemorate Historic Flood in New Exhibit,” 17 Feb. 2013.]

One response to “Un-Review of Dayton Art Institute’s 1913 Flood Exhibition

  1. Pingback: 1913 Flood Centennial | Glancing Backwards

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