Nestled in a central gallery on the fourth floor of the Museum of Modern Art, between rooms containing seminal works by the likes of Robert Rauschenberg, Jackson Pollock, and Andy Warhol, “Walker Evans American Photographs” consists of approximately 60 photos Evans shot during the 1930s. Both the title and the location set the viewer up. These are not Walker Evans’s American photographs; they are “American Photographs”—the embodiment of a nation. Such a declaration raises the question: “Are these photographs that iconic?”
The answer is a resounding yes.
Culled largely from MOMA’s permanent collection, the prints that comprise American Photographs were shown either in an exhibition of the same name in 1938 or in the book that was published to accompany it. Those who know Evans best for his photographs of Depression-era Americans taken on behalf of the Farm Security Administration, a government agency set up to combat rural poverty, will be surprised by the number of architectural images on view here. Nearly half the photos depict structures—religious, industrial, and domestic—devoid of human presence.
These include Post Office, Sprott, Alabama (1936), a boarded-up two-story clapboard structure upon which is hung a large Coca-Cola advertisement. Located on a desolate country road, the building looks more like a set piece for a Western than a functional post office. Equally pristine is View of Ossining, New York (1930), a wide shot of the mismatched structures perched on a hill in the Westchester town where Evans lived. These, along with images like Mississippi Land (1936), which depicts a tilled field, and Negro Church, South Carolina (1936), a whitewashed church building marked by a bell tower, form a picture of the idyllic place contemporary politicians look to conjure when they throw around terms like “small town America.”
Echoes of French documentary photographer Eugène Atget, who was championed after his death by surrealist photographers Man Ray and Berenice Abbott, abound. Factory Street in Amsterdam, New York (1930) looks more like a 19th-century Paris boulevard than an alley in an industrial American city. Mansard Houses, South End, Boston, Massachusetts (1932) makes the fronts of American brownstones look like the facades of 18th-century French palaces. Evans, who was born into an affluent family in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1903, and spent a year living abroad in Paris in 1926, is not so much inventing an American vernacular as he is imitating an aesthetic that lends grandeur to the ordinary.
Recognizable to most will be Alabama Cotton Tenant Farmer Wife (1936), the image of the pretty, thin-lipped Allie Mae Burroughs that Evans took while on assignment with writer James Agee to capture the lives of tenant farmers for Fortune magazine—a project that would later become the seminal documentary tome Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. It is accompanied by other images from the trip, including Alabama Sharecropper and Family Singing Hymns (1936), which depicts a man and his three children against a plain wooden backdrop that serves to neutralize their poverty.
Evans tried his hand at candid street photography, but the results pale in comparison to the thrilling urban scenes captured by others, including his contemporary, Weegee. Main Street Faces (1935) looks like a still from a gangster movie. Parked Car, Small Town Main Street (1932) is a banal shot of two young women staring quizzically at the camera. Much more effective are the images in which people seem to be just beyond the frame, such as Negro Barber Shop Interior, Atlanta (1936), which tells a story in a wealth of details—two worn chairs covered in towels, an open newspaper hanging on a rack on the wall, a crumpled hat left on a side table.
Many have no doubt snapped the pretty latticework on a building in the French Quarter during Mardi Gras, applied Instagram’s “Inkwell” filter, and unwittingly replicated Evans’s House in New Orleans (1935). It’s not the uniqueness of his photographs that matters, but rather what they capture as a whole. Upon a landscape of strip malls and housing projects, we still project a fantasy of small-town stores, middle-class houses, and hardworking people. America as seen through the lens of Walker Evans.