American Photography; a Document or an Art form?
Walker Evans, 1903 – 1975
Walker Evans began photographing in 1927, using a small handheld camera. He soon started to specialize in street life, viewing buildings, roadsides, and the people of cities, town and villages. His images focuses in on a subject, and research how it is changed and perceived by being photographs. A complex technique that mange to approach a subject while at the same time keeping it at a distance.
His documentary perception was inspired by the french photographer Eugène Atget, who he admired for his poetic dimensions of the images that celebrated an era that Atget knew was doomed. Through Atgets work Evans learned how the things people make are immensely evocative to whom they are attached - everything is its own.
Sharecoppers work shoes , New York, 1929
The difference of Evans is that he is portending to give you the facts, but for most parts he is by the choice of the facts influencing how you understand it.
Evans is best know for the work he did for the FSA ( Farm security administration) as an information specialist, where he was assigned to represent the small-town life and ease the depression in rural america. Evans first concern with this work was photographing in the context of any ideology which he refused; “This is pure record, not propaganda”1
Alabama Tenant Farmer wife, 1936.
Evans wanted to show what was there and during his assignment in Hale county he made most of his photographs in and around the four-room cabin of Floyd and Allie Mae Burroughs. The family owned nothing - not their home, land, mule, or farm tools, all of which they leased from their landlord.
The honesty of the situation Evans tries to capture by studying Allie Mea up close. The encounter does not show who these people lived, but it becomes an intense scene between the subject and the photographer, that respects and equalize them both. The roughness of the picture and the expression in her eyes tells us about her worries and her life with out telling us, but the forwardness in the picture is deceptive for by saying less it forces the subject to reveal everything. “The value, and if you like, even the propaganda value for the government lies in the record itself, which in the long run will prove an intelligent and farsighted thing to have done. NO POLITICS WHATEVER.”1
Evans worked with little concern for the ideological agenda and tried to distill the essence of the American life to the simple and ordinary. Doing his employment at FSA (1935-1938) he contrived to keep his employers relatively happy, but foremost he took advantage of the opportunity to perfect his photographic techniques. “Very often I´m doing one thing when I´m thought to be doing something else.”2
Kitchen corner, Tenant Farmhouse,1936.
Photographic documentation focuses on two things; 1, to deliver the truth, and 2, to act as a social agent making life better. Evans would recent both ideas, but kept calling his photos a document aesthetics to state that documentary images looks like the fact but is not objective. This would be a thorn in the eye of FSA, revealing their propaganda scheme in a radical and bold artistic move. Much of Evans photos are therefor not the fact, it only looks objective. He would rearranging the scenes in order to elevated simple objects to iconic symbols, and by the simplicity in the scenes he would represented american life through his own persona.
Evans assembled his material for the exhibition and book “American photography” in 1938, where he showed the best of his photographs since 1928. He loathed the idea of art as a unique peace, and the intention of his pictures, most importantly, therefor exist as a collection of statements. They are thought to be seen together and presented as a consisting attitude. He was able to show how fare he had gone beyond the documentary traditions and many of the images in American Photography are characterized by erosion, chaos, neglect, or dilapidation, and should be read in its historic scenery.
2 Walker Evans The Hungry Eye, by Thames & Hudsom, p. 132
3 Walker Evans The Hungry Eye, by Thames & Hudsom, p. 132