Tag Archives: Great Depression

‘American Photographs’ by Walker Evans

Like the work of most great artists, the best of Walker Evans’ pictures are marvels of contradiction. Or, rather, they acquire their power through the contradictions they deftly reconcile. One especially striking example: a photograph from 1930 (slide 11 in this gallery) comprised of elements so incongruous that, taken together, they really should not bear scrutiny for more than a few moments before the viewer, shrugging indifferently, moves on.

But through Evans’ uncanny visual alchemy, that particular photograph’s disparate graphic elements—family photos; a half-hidden American flag; dried flowers; a truly hideous plant growing with almost unseemly vitality from a battered wooden bucket—appear not only to belong together, but to need one another in order to make sense.

MOMA

Cover

As seemingly chaotic and even unappealing as the image might feel at first glance, those wildly variant aspects of the photo—the flag, the plant, the faces—somehow cohere into something far more than the sum of their parts. Despite its initially jarring message, “Interior Detail of Portuguese House” does not, in fact, spurn scrutiny—it commands, and rewards, scrutiny. And what’s more amazing is that, after a time, the photograph appears to be gazing back. It is the viewer, and not the picture, that is the subject of an unblinking inquiry—and it’s unsettling.

But if Evans’ pictures are evidence of a rare facility for both creating and resolving contradictions, his career might be seen as his masterpiece. A fierce, determined artist, Walker Evans was for decades on staff at Time Inc.—a salaried editor at, of all places, Fortune magazine from the 1940s until the mid-1960s. That the man behind one of the seminal photographic efforts of the 20th century—the 1938 masterwork, American Photographs—went to the office each day, like any other nine-to-fiver, might astonish those photography buffs who have always, understandably, imagined Evans as nothing if not an irresistible creative force.

And yet, here again, Evans’ intrinsic contradictions—managed as Rodin might handle a lump of clay, or Koufax a curveball—are ultimately resolved in the photographs, singly and collectively, that he produced. He is both iconoclast and working stiff; company man and virtuoso.

This year marks the 75th anniversary edition of American Photographs, reissued by the Museum of Modern Art in an edition that recaptures, for the first time since its original release, what might be called the book’s radical purity. (The book itself, as a physical object, is a pleasure to hold; the duotone plates are gorgeous and crisp, and the size of this edition—an at-once solid and easily handled 7.75″ x 8.75″ hardcover—does justice to the serious, unfussy, thrilling nature of the work inside.)

As in the first edition, Evans’ pictures in the MoMa release appear only on the right-hand side as one turns each page, the utterly blank page on the left—without even a caption to distract the eye—adjuring one to look, to really look, at each picture, one after the other. And as the pages (slowly, slowly) turn, Evans’ accomplishment grows more evident, more impressive, more engaging.

The standard line on Evans is that no one—with a camera or a paintbrush—had ever captured America in quite the clear-eyed, unsentimental, honest  way that he did. But that patently true declaration still fails to encompass the scale and the sustained excellence of his achievement. In American Photographs, in images made during the Great Depression in places as divergent as Pennsylvania, Alabama, New York City and Havana, Cuba, Evans did not hold a mirror up to his country and his time: no mirror ever made, after all, could so clearly reflect what he saw, and what he wanted others to see.

Instead, each and every one of Evans’ pictures provides a window—or an unadorned window frame—from which even the glass has been removed, and through which we witness a scene of such clarity and immediacy that our own contemporary surroundings, if only for a moment, seem somehow less freighted with history. Less grounded. Less real.

The details of a house in Maine (slide 17)—the surprisingly jaunty, seemingly tilted windows; the elegant shapes, graceful patterns and, above all, the textures that give the structure its personality—are not merely the handiwork of people who obviously cared about their hard work; the details of the house are reminders of, and tributes to, the enduring value of hard work and the attention to craft.

The stance, the clothing and the unreadable expression on the face of a lean, dapper citizen of Havana in 1932 (slide 9) are not merely separate elements of a snapshot: like the details of a portrait by an Old Master, they combine to suggest a time, a place and an attitude (defiant, dignified) that have survived the passing decades intact—even if, by now, the man himself must be long dead.

These pictures, and the other pictures in American Photographs, are intensely daring precisely because the man who made them worked so hard to hide—to efface—the effort that went into creating them. Each image stands on its own, while at the same time each picture references the photograph that comes before, and the photograph that follows. It is a straightforward book that stirs complex emotions. It is a treasure.

‘Walker Evans: American Photographs (Seventy-Fifth Anniversary Edition)’ is available through the Museum of Modern Art.

Ben Cosgrove is the editor of LIFE.com.

New York, Cocteau and a Parabolic Mirror: ‘Berenice Abbott: Photographs’

Though she went to Paris in 1921 to study sculpture, Berenice Abbott would transition to photography when she became Man Ray’s assistant in 1923. Three years later, she set up her own studio, photographing the French capital’s bohemians, artists and intellectuals—and famous friends such as writers James Joyce and Jean Cocteau—before moving back to the States in 1929.

For the next two decades, Abbott focused her lens on Depression-Era New York, producing a number of moving, black-and-white images that would become part of her book Changing New York. This series, along with nearly 120 other images, is being featured in a new exhibition at Toronto’s Ryerson Image Center called Berenice Abbott: Photographs.

“She was an underestimated photographer during her life and even today,” says Gaelle Morel, the exhibition’s curator and author of the accompanying book, Berenice Abbott. “But Berenice has this capacity of mixing different aesthetics, depending on the subject, which was really extraordinary. She can do a more modern, New Vision style when it came to photographing New York buildings, or take a more documentary approach for her portraits.”

Keystone-France / Getty Images

Berenice Abbot standing for a portrait, behind a view-camera, circa early 1900s

Abbott gained acclaim for her own comprehensive career, which would later involve photographic work on physics, commissioned by Boston’s Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But she also became famous for her staunch support of French photographer Eugène Atget, whom she met in 1925 while living in Paris. Atget died two years later, and it was Abbott who would photo-edit a book of his work and help stage an exhibition of his work in New York. She sold her Atget collection to the Museum of Modern Art in 1968.

“Berenice always said she had two careers—one of her own, and one championing Atget,” Morel says. “She wanted to be recognized as the Atget of New York, not necessarily his aesthetic, but his intellect.”

Berenice Abbott: Photographs, co-organized by The Ryerson Image Centre in Toronto and the Jeu de Paume in Paris, is on view through Aug. 19 at Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario. The accompanying book is published by Editions Hazan and Yale University Press.

Natasha Egan to become New Director of the MoCP

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The Museum of Contemporary Photography is pleased to announce Natasha Egan as its new Director beginning September 1, 2011.

Egan has been at the MoCP for 15 years and has organized numerous national and international exhibitions, such as Made in China; The Edge of Intent; The Road to Nowhere? for the Fotofest 2010 Biennial; and, most recently, Public Works at the MoCP.

Egan has contributed essays to such publications as Shimon Attie: The History of Another; Beate Gütschow: LS/S; Michael Wolf: The Transparent City and Placing Memory: A Photographic Exploration of Japanese American Internment. Additionally, she frequently juries national and international exhibitions and lectures.

Current Director Rod Slemmons, who is leaving the MoCP to become a Curator-at-Large and Director of Special Projects in Columbia College Chicago’s Office of Academic Research, leaves behind a strong legacy at the MoCP.

“I’m quite proud of all that we’ve been able to accomplish over my past nine years at the MoCP,” says Mr. Slemmons. “When I arrived, the permanent collection began at 1957 and was purely American. We quickly changed that to 1936, allowing us to include major holdings by photographers working during the Great Depression–– plus, we diversified the collection by including more international work.”

“The institution has seen significant progress under Rod Slemmons’ direction,” said Egan, “and I’m thrilled to build upon his efforts.”

For more information on changes at the museum, upcoming shows and exhibitions, or details on the artists that comprise its permanent collection, please take a look at the MoCP’s website, keep updated here on our newly renovated blog or become a fan on Facebook.

Natasha Egan to become New Director of the MoCP

php3sK2CJPM.jpg

The Museum of Contemporary Photography is pleased to announce Natasha Egan as its new Director beginning September 1, 2011.

Egan has been at the MoCP for 15 years and has organized numerous national and international exhibitions, such as Made in China; The Edge of Intent; The Road to Nowhere? for the Fotofest 2010 Biennial; and, most recently, Public Works at the MoCP.

Egan has contributed essays to such publications as Shimon Attie: The History of Another; Beate Gütschow: LS/S; Michael Wolf: The Transparent City and Placing Memory: A Photographic Exploration of Japanese American Internment. Additionally, she frequently juries national and international exhibitions and lectures.

Current Director Rod Slemmons, who is leaving the MoCP to become a Curator-at-Large and Director of Special Projects in Columbia College Chicago’s Office of Academic Research, leaves behind a strong legacy at the MoCP.

“I’m quite proud of all that we’ve been able to accomplish over my past nine years at the MoCP,” says Mr. Slemmons. “When I arrived, the permanent collection began at 1957 and was purely American. We quickly changed that to 1936, allowing us to include major holdings by photographers working during the Great Depression–– plus, we diversified the collection by including more international work.”

“The institution has seen significant progress under Rod Slemmons’ direction,” said Egan, “and I’m thrilled to build upon his efforts.”

For more information on changes at the museum, upcoming shows and exhibitions, or details on the artists that comprise its permanent collection, please take a look at the MoCP’s website, keep updated here on our newly renovated blog or become a fan on Facebook.

Jesse Rieser

I recently discovered the work of Jesse Rieser, when an image he submitted for the Mother’s Day post caught my eye. I explored his website and not only discovered wonderful work, but that he was an Angeleno. Jesse was born in Missouri and now lives in California working as a editorial, commercial, and fine art photographer. In fact, Jesse is attending Review Santa Fe this weekend, presenting the body of work featured below. I have no doubt that we will be seeing more of his terrific work in the years to come.

Statement for The Class of 99 Turns 30: This year my high school classmates and I turned 30. As we entered adulthood we had reason to be optimistic and confident. Our formative years were cocooned in security, a youth spent in a time of economic growth and low unemployment.

This is what we were promised: “You are being bequeathed the tools for achieving a material existence that neither my generation or any that preceded it could have even remotely imagined as we began our life’s work.” – Allan Greenspan 1999 commencement speech.

Morgan Kline

Today, unemployment hovers at 9.6 percent. Housing foreclosures are at an all time high and personal bankruptcy filings are estimated to affect 1.7 million Americans. My generation is the first in a hundred years that is unlikely to be financially better off than it’s parents.

Erin Brown Helsin

It’s in this moment of transition that I photographed my classmates in settings relevant to the lives they are building.

Sara Lee Sayers

The images show a community last assembled at graduation during America’s most prosperous moment, regrouping in 2009 during the toughest economic and social circumstances since the Great Depression. The portraits examine what has been gained or lost in the interim.

Mary Knauer Miller

Some are recovering from job losses, drug and alcohol addiction and loss of family. Others are building families, achieving in their early careers and volunteering in their communities. Like all generations, we struggle to define ourselves as parents, citizens, family members and spouses. We work to create meaningful lives; we work to understand what “meaningful” looks like.

Erin Brown Helsin 2

Megan Mckenzie

Preston Ingram


Mathew Hilton

Megan Mckenzie 2

Aaron Cooper

Amy Hawkins

Haley Alford Gillespie

Mathew Hillton 2

Anthony Collins

– Documentary Photography in the 1930s

In the wake of the Great Depression two photo documentaries visualised the conditions of work and life of the American farming population, suffering the calamities of drought and economic poverty. Here, Hans Durrer discusses both these projects that were instrumental in defining documentary photography.

Left: Like this one, all photographs illustrating this article, are from the FSA project "Let us now praise famous men."

 Imbuing fact with feeling. The term documentary was coined in the late 1920s by the British film maker John Grierson, and stands for the truthful depiction of reality while at the same time imbuing facts with feeling. It is "an approach that makes use of the artistic faculties to give vivification to facts" as Walt Whitman defined the place of poetry in the world. In the words of Walter Sussman: "… the whole idea of documentary – not with words alone but with sight and sound – makes it possible to see, know, and feel the details of life, to feel oneself part of some other’s experience."

Documentary, despite it sounding rather soulless, signifies the primacy of feeling over fact, and consists, essentially, of a deeply humanistic take on the real world, for, as Stott pointed out: "A document, when human, is the opposite of the official kind; it is not objective but thoroughly personal." Yet the purpose of documentary photography was to reach beyond the self, its intention was, as Dorothea Lange and Paul Taylor explained, "to let the subjects, the living participants of a social reality, speak to you face to face. Having looked at a documentary book, you could no longer be ignorant of them. You had seen their faces."

In 1929, the stock market crashed, and in the 1930s the Great Depression held America in its grip. Unemployment in 1933 approached 48 million, skilled and unskilled workers were affected, and no group was exempt from wage reductions. Persistent drought and misuse of land forced families to migrate from the heartland to the west in search for jobs and arable land. One of the projects that the Roosevelt government brought under way was the Resettlement Administration, a division of the Department of Agriculture. Its goal was "to revitalize a number of existing farm relief and housing operations," and to alleviate suffering "by providing resettlement loans to farmers and work programs for the urban unemployed."

The FSA project. The Historic Section of the Resettlement Administration, later the Farm Security Administration (FSA), started the most ambitious photographic project of that period – and one of the most ambitious of all time. As Rosenblum explains: "The project represented the New Deal’s understanding that a visual documentation of conditions of work and life faced by farmers who suffered the calamities of drought and economic depression, and were in the process of being driven permanently from the land, was required to justify Federal expenditures for relief projects. Eventually in response to Congressional displeasure at the depiction of unrelieved poverty, photographers were directed to portray more positive aspects of the national experience."

In 1936, Fortune magazine decided to send its reporter James Agee to the South to portray a white tenant farmer and his family. This was exactly the kind of work that got Agee excited. He had been on the brink of resigning from the magazine because he "was growing bored with his assignments on such lifeless topics as glass, jewelry and Colonial Williamsburg," yet this assignment made him postpone leaving. He had only one request, he wanted the FSA photographer Walker Evans to accompany him to take the pictures.

The task the FSA photographers were confronted with was not only to document agrarian distress, for behind it lay the "… larger issues of meaning and identity. Moreover, they were being asked to consider and to portray people, especially in the South, who had already been effectively typecast as hopeless cases," writes Jeffrey. In the words of Greil Marcus: "In some ways they – the tenant farmers – lived like peasants on latifundios in El Salvador today; in almost every way they did not live in the United States as, even during the Depression, it was commonly understood. Living at the very margins of the economy, they were all but outside of history."

Hale County, Alabama. When Agee and Evans – respectively 27, and 33 years old – finally set out for the South, they did so with the best of intentions. Their’s would be a gentle approach, any exploitation was to be avoided. Both were strong individualists, and they did not intend to turn their assignment into a propaganda mission. Unsurprisingly, the start proved to be difficult – "… the rural southerners they met regarded the two journalists from New York with suspicion." Eventually, in Hale County, Alabama, after searching for more than a month, they won the hearts of three tenant families who grew cotton, the Burroughses, the Tingles, and the Fieldses – who became known as the Gudgers, the Ricketts, and the Woods.

Needless to say, it is a daring and highly problematic undertaking to spend so much time with, and around, people who are down and out with the eventual purpose of using them, albeit with good intentions. As Agee put it: "It seems to me curious, not to say obscene and thoroughly terrifying, that it could occur to an association of human beings drawn together through need and chance and for profit into a company, an organ of journalism, to pry intimately into the lives of an undefended and appallingly damaged group of human beings, an ignorant and helpless rural family, for the purpose of parading the nakedness, disadvantage and humiliation of these lives before another group of human beings, in the name of science, of "honest journalism" (whatever that paradox may mean), of humanity, of social fearlessness, for money, and for a reputation for crusading and for unbias which, when skillfully enough qualified, is exchangeable at any bank for money (and in politics, for votes, job patronage, abelincolnism), and that these people could be capable of meditating this prospect without the slightest doubt of their qualification to do an "honest" piece of work, and with a conscience better than clear, and in the virtual certitude of almost unanimous approval."

Let us now praise famous men. What emerged from this challenge was not the magazine article accompanied by photographs they originally were assigned to do but a volume of five hundred pages. It goes without saying that their editors at Fortune were not enchanted – this was a text at least ten times longer as they had wanted. Yet above all: in no respect did this work fit the categories in demand at the time. "In brief, it was … too long, too personal, and too violent," as Stott phrased it.

In any case: delivering a five hundred page piece to a magazine is asking for trouble and it does not seem unlikely that this was exactly what Agee had been up to. It was an enthralling and, at the same time, arduous text, not fitting any category – a "combination of poetic mediation and plain reportage on everyday life, of weather and landscape and eruptions of love and bitterness," Marcus writes – it is the kind of book publishers prefer to not lay hands on. That it finally came out was due to Eunice Jessup, a friend of Agee and editor at Houghton Mifflin, who strongly recommended and, subsequently – the book sold not more than 300 copies [1] – lost her job over it.

The book was finally published in September 1941. By then Europe had fallen and the Battle of Britain entered the terrible months of the Blitz – the time for launching such a book could hardly have been worse. Moreover, everything that could be said by that time about tenancy seemed to have already been said, and, last but not least, Let us now praise famous men was not at all the kind of book that would give itself easily to the readers. And as far as Agee was concerned, it did not want to: "Official acceptance is the one unmistakable symptom that salvation is beaten again, and it is the one surest sign of fatal misunderstanding, and is the kiss of Judas."

It is ironic that Let us now praise famous men has come to be seen as characterising America in the 1930s, for its unfortunate publishing history alone illustrates clearly that it was not at all perceived to be an expression of the times – the then bestseller was You have seen their faces , the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of tenant farming as it was called.

You have seen their faces appeared in November 1937 when the sharecroppers were a prominent topic. Caldwell’s text expressed what the sociologists, government officials and journalists had been saying all along: that no plan so far was sufficient, that re-education and supervision was needed, and that mono-crop agriculture was disastrous. It was an acceptable, liberal, and conventional text – the kind most editors like. Yet it most probably would not have sold so well would it have not been for the photos of Bourke-White. She showed people that were "bare, defenseless before the camera and its stunning flash. No dignity seems left them: we see their meager fly-infested meals, their soiled linen; we see them spotlit in the raptures of a revival meeting, a woman’s arms frozen absurdly in the air; we see a preacher taken in peroration, his mouth and nostrils open like a hyena’s," writes Stott.

Her pictures were spectacular, and the ironic captions made them stand out even more. A sharecropper, for instance, with a furrowed face and watering eyes was made to say: "A man learns not to expect much after he’s farmed cotton all his life." Although the authors had made it clear that the captions were not intended to reflect the sentiments of the people portrayed but were a reflection of their own view, one cannot but feel taken aback by the condescension and arrogance displayed. Nevertheless, You have seen their faces was "inventive" and "unprecedented in the scale of its pictures and its many layered relations between the pictures and the text," writes the critic Alan Trachtenberg. Text and words were given equal prominence – an approach that is, unfortunately, still not very common.

You have seen their faces. Let us now praise famous men was of an entirely different spirit – it invented documentary. Evans and Agee had attempted to capture reality as it unfolded in front of their eyes. They wanted to record their experience of this world, and they did so obsessively – Agee documented his reaction to, literally, everything – yet with respect for the people they portrayed. This implied that "the reality treated is in no way tampered with. Nothing is imposed on experience," as Stott elaborates. There is no arranging in the way Evans went about his photographing; it is about being there, and being open for the moment that Agee described as "… all of consciousness is shifted from the imagined, the revisive, to the effort to perceive simply the cruel radiance of what is. This is why the camera seems to me, next to unassisted and weaponless consciousness, the central instrument of our time."

To perceive the things as they are, this is what Agee calls for. It is also what Dorothea Lange argues for: "That frame of mind that you need to make a very fine picture of a very wonderful thing, is different from the frame of mind of being on the pavement, jostled and pushed and circulating and rubbing against people with no identity. You cannot do it by not being lost yourself."

Margaret Bourke-White, on the other hand, practised the art of stealing pictures – "seldom," she writes – and rearranging scenes her way, despite saying that "the love of truth … is requisite No.1 for a photographer." She looks for the spectacular, the extraordinary, the drama – what editors usually are asking for, then and now. "She was after the most extreme signs of poverty and degradation she could find," so the Evans biographer Rathbone. The contrast to Evans’ approach could hardly have been greater. In the words of Stott: "Evans does not expose the reality he treats, he reveals it – or better, he lets it reveal itself. He does not seek out, he in fact avoids the spectacular, the odd, the piteous, the unseemly. Bud Woods’ skin cancer, the Rickettses’ "stinking beds," the horde of flies on the tenants’ food and on their children’s faces – these he does not show, though Bourke-White and Russell Lee showed them. He shows instead Bud Woods with a bandanna on his shoulder covering his sores, as one would naturally cover them from a stranger’s eyes; he shows the Gudgers’ neatly made bed; he shows an infant asleep beneath a flour sack to keep the flies off him. In short, he records people when they are most themselves, most in command, as they impose their will on the environment. He seeks normal human realities, but ones that have taken a form of such elegance that they speak beyond their immediate existence. These realities are the material of his art, which he calls "transcendent documentary photography": the making of images whose meanings surpass the local circumstances that provided their occasion."

The journalist’s dilemma. Being around their farmer families for quite some time naturally created an intimacy that was difficult to escape. It is the journalist’s dilemma that in order to get access to reliable information, they need the people to trust them, and that in order to make a living, they would have to exploit this trust. Evans and Agee knew that, eventually, they would betray their hosts. When they finally, after having extended their initially planned two weeks stay to three months, returned to New York, they "felt as much guilt as they had setting out." A few months later, Flora Bee Tingle wrote to Evans: "I sure was heart broken to see you leaving down hear. I was already heart broken but you Broken My Heart worser."

There is no doubt: Let us now praise famous men and You have seen their faces were instrumental in defining documentary. Alan Trachtenberg expressed his hope that we may come to see "these two imaginative works less as antagonists than as coinhabitants of the same historical and cultural space." Yet as much as these two were coinhabitants of the same time and space, they stood, and still stand, for totally antagonistic values – the self-reflective, and genuine trip of inquiry, concerned with the whole process of documenting (Agee and Evans), versus the cool professional arrogance mainly interested in the usability of the endeavour (Caldwell and Bourke-White).

 

Notes
1. Greil Marcus (1997) mentions "something over five hundred copies." In his introduction to the 1988 edition of Let us now praise famous men John Hersey writes: "In 1948 Let us now praise famous men fizzled out of print, having sold only 1,025 copies." The book was reissued in 1960 and, eventually, became a classic.

References

* Agee, James, and Walker Evans (1988), Let us now praise famous men. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1988.
* Bourke-White, Margaret (1964), Portrait of myself. London: Collins.
* Caldwell, Erskine, and Margaret Bourke-White (1995), You have seen their faces. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.
* Cox, Christopher (1987), "Preface." In: Dorothea Lange, Dorothea Lange. The Aperture masters of photography series, volume 5. New York: Aperture.
* Jeffrey, Ian (1981), Photography. A concise history. New York: Oxford University Press.
* Marcus, Greil (1997), The dustbin of history. London: Picador.
* Rathbone, Belinda (1995), Walker Evans. A biography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
* Rosenblum, Naomi (1997), World history of photography. New York: Abbeville Press Newhall, 1997.
* Stott, William(1986), Documentary expression and thirties America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Originally published in "Studies in Photography " © Hans Durrer and Soundscapes.