April 19, 2009
Walker Evans: American Photographs
Walker Evans, Roadside View, Alabama Coal Area Company Town, 1936
Walker Evans' photographs, commissioned under the New Deal, are a prime example of the documentary ability of photographs. In American Photographs, a collection published by the Museum of Modern Art in 1938, Evans’ photographs are presented in two sections. First, we are shown the American people and second, their places. These two sections combine to create a collection that looks inward at the ideals of the American people along the Eastern seaboard in an age of prosperity and progress, on the brink of catastrophe.
Walker Evans, Torn Movie Poster, 1930
Walker Evans, Sidewalk in Vicksburg, Mississippi, 1936
In Looking at Photographs, John Szarkowski says of Evans' work that it is “the antithesis of art: economical, precisely measured, frontal, unemotional, dryly textured, factual.” Szarkowski also points to Evans' capacity to show a decisively American tradition of subject matter while expressing it as a question of what Americans thought of themselves at the time. The quintessential example of Evans' tendency to question American values and thought is Torn Movie Poster, 1930. In this image, Evans' contrasts the materialism of mainstream culture as represented in the movie poster against the reality of the society from which it comes, as it is ripped apart. Evans also does not shy away from a photo packed with visual information, like in Sidewalk in Vicksburg, Mississippi, 1936 in which the African American position in society is shown through the placement of the figures in the photograph as juxtaposed with that of the white man. The white man sits contained in his automobile, protected from the street, staring straight ahead as if he is the only one there. The Camel cigarette sign and the three men sitting in front of the store embody Evans' comparison of reality to American cultural iconography. The camel sign could also be taken as a reference to American consumerism. Once again, Evans looks at Americana and turns it on itself to question the values that lie beneath.
Walker Evans, New Orleans Houses, 1935
In the second section of American Photographs, American architecture is featured, again documenting the ideals of the people of the era. Evans' masters the portrayal of architecture in photograph such as, New Orleans Houses, 1935 where he depicts architecture as art. Lincoln Kirstein has pointed out in the book's accompanying essay, "Photographs of America: Walker Evans," that American architecture appealed to genres past as a testament to the desire for “the prestige of the past in a new land.” Thus, Evans shows the social monuments of the era as they revealed the inner desires of the American people to establish themselves. Also in this photograph, Evan’s confronts the image straight on and tightly bundles the three frame houses in one image. Kirstein suggests this head on view, characteristic of Evans' work, is a frank perspective showing both the purity of his vision and the cynical attitude that lie beneath.