In conjunction with Lehigh’s sesquicentennial celebration, the Lehigh University Art Galleries celebrated 150 years of South Bethlehem history with photographs from the collection showcased in Dubois Gallery in Maginnes Hall.
South Bethlehem started as an agricultural landholding purchased in 1746 by the Moravian Brethren on the the North Side of the Lehigh River. Almost 100 years later, the Moravians decided to sell these farms. South Bethlehem was incorporated as a borough in 1865, the same year Lehigh University was chartered by Asa Packer. The collection on display in Maginnes Hall serves to link Lehigh and Bethlehem with their past.
Curatorial associate Mark Wonsidler said not only do the photos in the gallery showcase a history of South Bethlehem, but they also show the history of photography because Bethlehem’s history nearly coincides perfectly with the progress of photography.
“We knew we had pieces of art history and local history,” Wonsidler said. “We look at these as a sliver in time.”
Renowned and amateur photographers alike captured the changing demographics and landscapes over the past 150 years.
Walker Evans, a photographer known best for his Depression-era photographs, immortalized South Bethlehem with his iconic shot of the town from St. Michael’s Cemetery. This drew in other photographers to honor his work and capture Bethlehem’s industrial and postindustrial history.
Ricardo Viera, curator-director of Lehigh University Art Galleries, said the gallery celebrates South Bethlehem, an integral part of the Lehigh community.
Wonsidler said several photos were taken at Lehigh or by someone from the Lehigh community, and that the collection shows how South Bethlehem and Lehigh developed concurrently.
“The movers and shakers, the players in South Bethlehem, were the same or connected to Lehigh,” Wonsidler said.
Robert Walch, a photographer, took a photo of a mural that his friend’s father painted inside a local South Bethlehem Church.
Walch has a passion for documentation with his style of photography. He said the camera makes elements of a subject more obvious when it is a still image.
“I’m depicting reality,” he said. “I basically like to document what I see. When you look at the photograph, you see things you didn’t see before.”
Walch is a photographer by profession, and he enjoys capturing landscapes, nature and architecture. Walch said as he is getting older, he has thought about legacy.
“What will I leave?” he asked himself as he got older. “What will people remember?”
Walch, who is friends with Viera, said they worked together to get his work into the collection because Lehigh University Art Galleries was a good place to deposit his work.
Viera mentioned that art helps people with their “visual literacy,” which is learning how to truly see.
“Everyone looks, but not everyone can see,” he said.
Patricia McAndew, Lehigh University Art Galleries historian, spoke about how the collection started sparse, but has been built up over the last 40 years.
In 2015, Lehigh’s art galleries had nearly 6,000 photographs and 13,000 objects in the collection, with 70 percent of the visitors being from the local community.
Sothy Eng, a photographer whose work was included in the gallery, took a photo near the Lehigh River from the same point of view as a historical photo. The two photos were added together to show the evolution of South Bethlehem.
Eng, who is also an education professor of practice at Lehigh, took the photo because he liked the shapes and historical architecture. When his photo was selected to be part of Lehigh’s collection, he said he could not believe it.
“To be featured here means you’re part of Bethlehem,” Eng said.