Thursday, January 13, 2011
Walker Evans at The Ogden
Greek Revival Townhouse with Men Seated in Dourway, New Orleans
Silver gelatin print
I went to The Ogden Museum to see the Walker Evans show on its final day up, January 2, 2011. I have been a big fan of Evans' work since college, when I fell in love with Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, on which Evans collaborated with James Agee.
The exhibit comprised three rooms of architectural photographs (the one above was one of very few with any people captured). The first room was New Orleans photographs and the other two rooms were photographs of plantations in southern Louisiana. All the photographs were taken on trips to Louisiana in 1935 and 1936 and are part of the actress Jessica Lange's collection.
As described by the museum, the photographs were intended to document real life during the Great Depression:
Working in what he called the “vernacular style,” Evans forged an approach that preferred the everyday to the precious and the factual over the artful. Although he often photographed inanimate objects, with architecture and signage being among his most lasting subjects, he also captured the harsh realities of American life in the grips of the Great Depression.
But viewing the exhibit in 2011, it struck me that it was nearly impossible for a contemporary viewer to see the photographs in that spirit. It was hard not to see the photographs as historical documents or curiosities from the past. (I was, for instance, excited to see an eighty year old photograph of a house that I like a lot on Esplanade Avenue.) And I worried, as I viewed the photographs of the crumbling old Greek revival plantation houses, that viewers would see the photographs with some measure of nostalgia, something that I suspect would have troubled Evans. (Though these buildings were many decades old when he photographed them and had little bearing on the "harsh realities" of the Great Depression. So I wonder what he found in them?)