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.

--Amy Palumbo


  1. Pretty haunting photos.

  2. These photos, while possessing factuality evocative of Hemingwayesque prose, are by no means devoid of emotion as Szarkowski claims. In fact, it is this very journalistic world-as-it-is documentation coupled with the viewer's acceptance of the reality these photos document, that imbue them with so much emotional potential. It is the viewer's resignation to the facts this photos represent that allow them to be so poignant. Thus, in claiming these photos are unemotional, Szarkowski is in effect illustrating my point. The notion that we can refer to these photos as unemotional strangthens their emotional impact ( on me anyway).

  3. The above post was written by Jean-Luc Delafontaine who evidently had some technical difficulties signing his name. :-)

  4. Walker Evans worked in a period sandwiched between two major catastrophes: The Great Depression and World War II. The context and time period in which his work was created play a significant role in its meaning. As noted by Szarkowski, in Evan’s Sidewalk in Vicksburg the placement of the African Americans on the sidewalk versus the placement of the white man in his car illustrates the segregation of the time. Szarkowski also points out the camel cigarettes are a reference to the growing consumerism of the time. Even his Torn Poster which is shot close up and is seemingly devoid of any context, reflects its time period. The Torn Poster is an image of the middle of a poster—the edges of the poster are not visible. At the top of the photograph, the letters “S” and “A” are visible. We, as the viewers, do not know what word is formed by these two isolated letter—we do not know what letters come before or what letters come afterword. The Torn Poster is hangs in time and space. The period between the Great Depression and World War II is similar to this—it is an isolated period of time between two major catastrophes. The torn look of the poster reflects both the past disasters caused by the Great Depression and it eerily even predicts the impending doom that is going to be caused by World War II. The lines caused by the tear in the poster almost appear as if they are blood running down the terrified woman’s face. The fact that this photograph was made when it was adds a tremendous amount of meaning to it. Walker Evans’ work demonstrates that the context of a photograph plays a momentous role in the work as a whole. The Torn Poster is so innovative that it depicts context of the time without directly showing it.

  5. Evan's ability is showcased in his work American photographs. Although Szarkowski claims these works are“the antithesis of art: economical, precisely measured, frontal, unemotional, dryly textured, factual," he is wrong. Although Evan's work is all these things, it is most definitely art. Everyday Americana is dry, economical and measured and Evans has captured that every day essence. He does not try to dress up the somewhat depressing images, they are a factual account of the times, perfectly set up and captured. It is often said that those who use the biggest words, have the least idea of what they are talking about, the same idea applies here. A photographer who has no idea what he is creating will add unnecessary frill. Evans, an expert photographer, understands that there is no need for filler. The image is perfect in its simplicity.

  6. Ayesha, I believe you are responding to comments by Amy Palumbo, not John Szarkowski, concerning the Vicksburg and Torn Poster photographs by Evans.