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'Three Mormon Towns' photography exhibit in Salt Lake City recaptures dream

By Kathryn Jones

For the Deseret News

Published: Sunday, March 7 2010 12:00 a.m. MST

"Man Cleaning Church" is one of Mark Hedengren's most popular photos of his exhibit.

Mark Hedengren, Kathryn Jones, Mark Hedengren

It began more than 50 years ago when life was simple and folks knew nothing of cordless phones, flat screen TVs and the Internet.

It was a time when renowned photographers Dorothea Lange and Ansel Adams, both interested in the towns of Gunlock, Toquerville and St. George, and the accompanying project, "Three Mormon Towns," decided to work together.

Unfortunately, Ansel Adams "wasn't interested in documentary, and Dorothea was," says James Swensen, assistant professor of BYU. When Adams wanted to photograph primarily people, and Lange preferred landscape, LIFE published the project but "chopped it down" he says. "The text and images were not successful."

Fortunately, another photographer, Mark Finch Hedengren, respected the work of both Adams and Lange, and he wanted to resurrect the project gathering dust.

"I felt a connection to their work," he says.

Hedengren began rephotographing "Three Mormon Towns" a little over a year ago. Working alone, he captured both the people and their surroundings and enlisted the help of four Utah poets to tell the story of "then" and "now."

"This is the funnest project I've ever shot," says Hedengren, who has been a professional photographer for 13 years. "I drove around in a Ford and listened to Gordon Lightfoot while I photographed southern Utah."

Hedengren was a resident of Utah before moving to New York for almost two years, as well as to Europe for about the same amount of time. Upon his return to Utah, he realized how "exotic and exciting" Utah was, and he wanted to capture it in photographs.

"There are things you see here [in Utah] you won't see anywhere else," Hedengren says, "The joy of family and the unique landscape." He speaks of the seven generations of family still residing in Gunlock — of the family that still owns the original gravel pit there and their efforts to get the family to return home.

Working and meeting people has been a "dream come true," he says.

Photos in the exhibit range from teens at a St. George swimming pool to the custodian at the a Gunlock LDS church. Poems by local artists Susan Howe, Lance Larsen, Kim Johnson and Nathan Robison only "strengthen the dimension of what my photography cannot," says Hedengren.

Robison's poem about Uncle Manny is a true one coupled with a bit of fiction concerning his hippie uncle.

"I loved Uncle Manny," he says, speaking of this less-than-stereotypical Mormon family member.

"I love creating characters that are fresh. And I love seeing time change in photography," he adds. "Growing up in Utah and then coming back is cool. What I thought was mundane became interesting to me."

"This exhibit is so much more than just following in the footsteps of famous photographers," says Margaret Hunt, Utah Division of Arts & Museums director. "It's bringing history and art together and showcasing life in our state, all through the lens of a talented Utah photographer."

Other than outdoor light not lasting as long as he'd like — and his friends who "had to deal with him working," Hedengren says that the experience went smoothly until he had to hand pick 32 prints from the original 6,000.

In the end, the favorite of most folks attending the exhibit on opening night seemed to be "Man Cleaning Church," says Hedengren. "The guy is vacuuming underneath the table, and it's a very subtle photo."

In the immediate future, Hedengren has plans to publish his book of photography, "The Mormons," a project that goes hand in hand with his current exhibit. The book will be released the end of April or the beginning of May, he says, and will include 140-150 photos of Utah and its people.

"Three Mormon Towns" will be held at The Rio Gallery (inside the Rio Grand Depo) at 300 S. 455 West in Salt Lake City through Thursday, March 18. The exhibit is free to the public.

If you go...

What: "Three Mormon Towns"

When: Through Thursday, March 18

Where: The Rio Gallery, 300 S. 455 West; Monday through Thursday, 7 a.m.-6 p.m; closed Friday through Sunday

Admission: Free

More info: Call (801)-533-3582.

Email: features@desnews.com

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