Next week will be the 100 year anniversary of the Great Dayton Flood, which was not only the biggest natural disaster to happen to Dayton and other communities along the Great Miami River – it was the worst natural disaster to happen in the entire country. Local media is covering this historic event, including here on Dayton Most Metro (check out our five-page feature by Joe Aiello), and several local organizations are recognizing this anniversary this month, including Dayton History, The Miami Conservancy District and Dayton Art Institute. The latter opened up a brand new three-part exhibit almost a month ago that runs through May 5 which I had the pleasure of previewing. (See our ticket contest at the end of this article!)
The first exhibit at DAI is called “Storm: Paintings by April Gornik“, with large-scale pieces that greet you and evoke the feeling one may have had watching those storms from a hundred years ago roll in over the Miami Valley. Gornik, an internationally renowned artist and Cleveland native, uses horizons, light and clouds to create an ominous atmosphere in each of her paintings that set the tone beautifully for the rest of the exhibit. She will be at DAI on Saturday 3/23 at 3pm to discuss the genesis and development of her work in the talk Landscape and Metaphor.
After you experience the larger-than-life paintings by April Gornik, you then begin “Watershed: 100 Years of Photography along the Great Miami River” and step back in time as you first view old photographic equipment that was used a century ago, putting into perspective the amount of work it took to carry these cameras around and capture those frightening scenes from the great flood. A far cry from today’s cameras that are simply part of our everyday smartphones that we slip into our pockets! From there you experience stunning historic photographs taken at all stages of the great flood, from the beginning rising waters to the height of the flood and desperation of those trying to escape, and finally to the mind-blowing aftermath that took an unprecedented community effort to not only rebuild, but rebuild in a way that avoided such a disaster for the next century and beyond.
The unique thing about the photos in this exhibit is that each is paired with a modern-day photo taken at each of the same locations by Dayton photographer Andy Snow. Andy painstakingly reviewed hundreds of historic photographs from the great flood and then went out and shot on-location over the course of several months to re-capture those moments in time one hundred years later. Andy happens to be a good friend of mine (his Downtown Dayton skyline image continues to serve as our social media profile backdrop) and I had a chance to ask him recently about his experience with this project.
Dayton Most Metro: The pictures you took for the Watershed exhibit at DAI are amazing. How long did this project take you?
Andy Snow: When the exhibition closes on May 5 it will be one year since I began the project. My mission was not necessarily to precisely match the old with the new, though you will see in the exhibition and the new book some images that are quite astonishingly close. The overarching concept that we (the MCD and I) worked on was to return to the sites of selected 1913 photos and create a representation of what exists at the site today in a fashion that resonates and informs not only how the Miami Conservancy District has helped us stay safe from a repeat of the disaster, but also how communities have returned with vibrancy and development along the Miami River without worry about such devastation happening again. Identifying exact locations is more of an art than science given that our only reference is the photos themselves. No GPS tagging back then. Often all I had to work with in the field was a small thumbnail of the 1913 image on my iPhone. I approached this as a documentarian. Record what was in front of the camera. No Photoshop post processing. I often made repeat visits to specific sites to get the light and the location just right. Having so many blue-sky days last summer and fall was an incredible bonus. I had many moments of serendipitous synchronicity.
DMM: Looking at the historic photos that were part of the exhibit, it doesn’t take much to imagine the horror that people went through during those terrifying days of the flood and the weeks and months that followed. Which historic photos had the biggest effect on you personally before you started shooting?
AS: The 1913 panorama view from hill where the The Dayton Art Institute was built in the 1920s, in my mind, one of the most iconic views. The glass transparency on display of this view is a treasure that we found in the MCD archive. It’s hand-tinted from the original B/W photo. I printed most of the prints in the exhibition; not just the new pictures but also the 1913 images from scans or high res digital photos I made of the postcards that were loaned from Historical Societies and collections.
Seeing photos of people standing on the remains of bridges to rescue poor souls clinging to pieces of houses coming downstream has impacted me for life.
DMM: And as you were photographing all of those same locations and vantage points, were there any that took on a new meaning once you stood in that spot?
AS: One favorite example would be how I was able to bring up more detail from the scan of the 1913 panorama (pictured below) so you can see more detail of the City of Dayton across what I have come to call “Lake Miami” which is what the Great Miami came to look like. The part of the picture that shows just how much McPherson Town was totally underwater is astonishing. The 2012 photo is now already an historic artifact because of the new work on I-75. The view has changed! As they rework the exits to downtown Dayton, the steel girders visible in this “new” photo have been removed. Lesson: nothing is permanent.
DMM: It is one thing to read about the flood, but it must be quite another to have studied those historic photos and then shoot modern-day photos in all of those same locations. What did you take away from your experience that you didn’t know or feel before you started?
AS: The big thing was how much the entire region was affected. Many Hamilton industries, for instance, along the Miami River were lost forever. Piqua was flooded first and the water traveled for several blocks to the downtown square. We knew about the impact here in Dayton. The revelation was how much wide-spread impact there was to other communities up and down the River, from farm lands to all kinds of businesses and neighborhoods.
Another big revelation came at the end of the photography process when I learned that a cousin of mine made some of the very photos from 1913 in West Carrollton that I referenced for the new photos there. We are descendants of a common ancestor that settled near the Great Miami along Bear Creek (north of Miamisburg) in 1804. Jacob Weaver was one of the region’s pioneers. His farm was a land grant received for fighting in the Revolutionary War for the Colony of Pennsylvania. (I love to say those last 3 words.) Noah Elwood Weaver was a photographer who worked for the West Carrollton Envelope Company as well as NCR. Yeah, his name was Noah. Photographing the Great Flood.
DMM: What do you hope people will take away after seeing the Watershed exhibit at the Dayton Art Institute?
AS: The Great Flood left a stamp, a watermark if you will, of caring and giving that makes living in this exceptional community such a joy and such a motivator of humanitarian deeds and great work for the good of all.
We have become stronger by evolving into a region of people that help their neighbors make a better place, a safer place for prosperity and growth. And I’m really proud to be a part of such a community.
The level of cooperation and collaboration between the cities and communities along the Great Miami is now at an all time high thanks to the anniversary of the Great Flood. It’s an historic moment and we can all benefit from the interaction and new growth possibilities and amenities that every community is working to complete. Fear of the River has subsided immeasurably. There’s really nothing quite like this return to the River anywhere else in the country.
Andy Snow will be at DAI on Saturday 3/23 at 4pm to present the talk Sherlock Holmes Meets Ansel Adams, a discussion of how he used cues and clues from 1913 photos of the flood to create new images that inform us about life and culture in the Miami River Valley, past, present, and future.
The last part of the exhibit is titled “Riverbank: Exploring Our River-Centered Development” and consists of images and information that capture development concepts and realities along the Great Miami River. You can revisit earlier concept plans for development of the area at the foot of The DAI’s grand staircase that runs along the northwest bank of the Great Miami, and current developments on the river are shown. Historical plans generate the basis of an interactive display that captures visitors’ ideas about ways in which The Dayton Art Institute might connect with kayak/canoe runs, bike and walking paths, public transportation routes and newly opened freeway access at their front door.
The three part exhibit at Dayton Art Institute is open now through May 5th. Tickets are $12 for adults, $9 for seniors, students and active military, $6 for youth (7-17) and free for DAI members and children under 7.
TICKET CONTEST CLOSED
Congratulations to our ticket winners!