Scavenging the Landscape: Walker Evans and American Life

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INTRODUCTION

The Great American Depression, spanning the 1930s, inscribed into the culture a psychic crisis. Faith in industrial ingenuity, heralded as "progressive," came unhinged. By 1933, four years after the stock market crash, one quarter of the work force was unemployed.(1) Into this dilemma came a multitude of photographic projects, the most famous of which were sponsored by the federal government in the form of agencies that provided relief to farmers, the unemployed and others. The most completely realized project was the documentation of conditions faced by displaced farmers, recorded by the Historic Section of the Resettlement Administration (RA), later the Farm Security Administration (FSA). The socially-oriented photographic book made its appearance, as did the photographic magazine, best exemplified by Life in 1936. Many of the best known American photographers came to prominence during the Depression, including Berenice Abbott, Dorothea Lange, Gordon Parks and Margaret Bourke-White. Of all the photographers from that era, one represented the quintessential photographic style of the Depression while remaining an elusive figure in photographic history: Walker Evans (1903-1975).

From the vantage point of 1995, Evans's documentation of the Depression era is axiomatic. His photographs are ubiquitous, both in print and in collections including the United States Library of Congress, which houses his FSA photographs. Surprisingly, until now a full-length biography of Evans has never been undertaken, although his life and photographs have occupied distinguished photographic and cultural historians including John Szarkowski, William Stott, Alan Trachtenberg, and most recently, Jean-Francois Chevrier.(2) The most elusive of the Depression-era photographers, Evans's personality and method of working set him apart from his contemporaries, his talent and taste emanating from a literary rather than a visual tradition.

The year 1995 marked the publication of two new studies examining Evans's life and work. The first, Walker Evans: A Biography, by independent photo historian and curator Belinda Rathbone, is written as a general interest biography. The book, the first full-length biography on Evans, exhumes the private aspects of the artist's life in an attempt to understand his work. Citing the difficulty that prior would-be biographers encountered in Evans's previously unsettled estate - recently settled and currently housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City - Rathbone's book makes use of a host of personal documents. As the daughter of Perry Rathbone, the former director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the author was fortunate to have known Evans. Building upon her early impressions of the artist - whom the author characterizes as eccentric and unconventional - she spent five years tracking down and gathering personal reminiscences from more than 100 of Evans's closest friends and associates. These testimonies form the basis of her understanding of Evans's character.

The second book, a 400-page catalog, Walker Evans: The J. Paul Getty Museum Collection, written and compiled by Judith Keller, the museum's associate curator of photography, provides an exhaustive analysis of the museum's Evans collection. The collection is broad in scope, and Keller's approach considers the photographs within the socio-cultural and aesthetic discourses spanning Evans's 50-year career. Much of the work came from photography collector Arnold Crane who purchased over 1000 archival prints from Evans in the 1960s and 1970s (an event documented by Rathbone). Keller organized the collection chronologically into 10 chapters, tracing Evans's key photographic assignments, each section rich with cultural significance and aesthetic analysis. Keller's research reveals continuity in the work: throughout his career, Evans pursued particular subject matter, "signage, and other found objects, portraits and architecture,"(3) (although this was not what he photographed exclusively). …