WALKER EVANS New Translations and Vintage Prints

The view through an open door is a popular image in photography and can be traced back to its invention more than 150 years ago. The reasons for its popularity might be on the one hand the picturesque effect of a doorway that becomes a frame for an image within the image, or simply, the fundamental curiosity of all photographers. However, curiosity is not the lone culprit or impulse for taking such a picture – the picture instantly becomes its own subject matter. A 1936 Walker Evans photograph illustrates this technique. It was taken in Hale County, Alabama, and shows the house of sharecropper Floyd Burroughs. The photograph casts an eerie image.

In the foreground, still outside the room, there is a basin on a board with a towel hanging beside it. Inside the room, which fills the background, you see a table, a chair, a cupboard, a stoneware jug and a kerosene lamp. There is hardly more to see; not even a grain of dust on the wooden floor, or so it seems.
Everything appears to be crisp and as graceful as if everyday life itself had sketched a little idyll here, in which each object turns into an icon, into the symbol of uncorrupted, innocent rural life. This is why it takes a while for you to realize that this picture does not tell of the things it shows, but of those which are missing. Then you realize its subtle messages – no running water and no electricity, no pictures or decorations hang on the roughly built wooden wall of the house where the planks are neither painted nor varnished. The household does not even have a proper peg for cloths; so the towel is thrown over a nail. Walker Evans’ photograph is a picture of alarming poverty. Yet there is something else to see: the threshold, this too is made of rough wood. As it were, Walker Evans included it in his composition as a stumbling block, as if to document his own caution. As if it had been important to him to depict the line he too does not cross. The moral aspect of his work was a question that for him not only concerned the people whose home and privacy he had intruded, but also applied to the aesthetic level. The living conditions from which he captured moments of touching beauty with his camera were harsh, even cruel. “It’s not beauty in the conventional sense”, he emphasized as if to defend himself: simply because the beauty was not visible to the people who lived in this poverty. And he continued: “If an audience can only be moved by a picture of someone with his guts pouring out, they’re not a very interesting audience.”

In America during the Great Depression in the rural South, millions of farm workers and sharecroppers, having lost work, roamed the country with their families, mostly westward toward California to escape the grip of poverty. With Walker Evans’ photographs the Farm Security Administration intended to inform the public about the deplorable conditions, thus pledging that enough financial support would be provided by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal policy. Walker Evans, however, could not be talked into producing propaganda material.

Positioned between documentation and art, Walker Evans followed his own vision, which left no room for sentimentality or the pathos of reproach. Evans, who originally wanted to be a writer and poet and had left America in the 1920s to study literature at the Sorbonne in Paris, and soon convinced himself that he lacked the necessary tools to be successful in words and retreated to his camera, where he developed his own form of communication, a visual grammar and language. Those photographs – perfect, dramatic, modern poetry – rarely included harmony. On the contrary, at the ragged edges of civilization, Evans’ ambiguous images more often than not shattered the American dream. It was a cool, analytic look with which he documented the vernacular culture in the villages and small towns of the South, the churches, barns and gas stations, the façades covered with torn advertisements, the humble furniture in the houses or the crowded shelves in the shops, where nobody could buy anymore because they had no money. So Evans’ focus became the inhabitants themselves. Seldom did he juxtapose the promises of consumer culture or the entertainment industry with reality as clearly as in the photograph of dull town houses, in front of which Carole Lombard promises “Love Before Breakfast” on a movie poster. Seldom did the trash of capitalism appear as literal as in the photograph of the rusty bodyworks on “Joe’s Auto Graveyard” in Pennsylvania. Once he was not able to resist the temptation to place the cross of a gravestone mightily and heavily in front of the phalanx of dead industrial chimney stacks. Most often, though, the layers were more intrinsically interwoven, although the camera angle remained frontal in most cases and so deprived the objects of at least their visual depth.

Walker Evans wanted nothing less than to produce a catalog of American everyday life, an inventory of the form and character even the most banal object. What a radical vision was hidden behind his supposedly emotionless chronicle did not remain unnoticed even at the time. In 1937 he left the Farm Security Administration in a quarrel with the head of the agency Roy Stryker. The Museum of Modern Art in New York, however, celebrated the photographs – and in 1938 dedicated the first one man photography retrospective to Walker Evans, a major part of which showed the images from his government assignment. Evans was not even thirty-four years old then, just for ten years he had been taking photographs. The photography show was an influential impulse for a whole generation of photographers: from Robert Frank and Diane Arbus to Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand to William Eggleston and William Christenberry – while he himself continued to explore new subjects and techniques to the day he died in 1975. 
The exhibition also had a major impact on US collective memory. To this day, the image of the Great Depression is formed by Walker Evans’ photographs, by his mercilessly sharp, hungry eye.

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