Thursday, January 13, 2011

Walker Evans at The Ogden

Walker Evans
Greek Revival Townhouse with Men Seated in Dourway, New Orleans
March 1935
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 It was hard not to see the photographs as historical documents or curiosities from the past.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?)


  1. From a good essay I read on Evans:

    Lincoln Kirstein said that 'Evans is interested in what any present will look like as past.'
    Evans told the FSA that his work would have 'no politics whatever.'
    He said in an interview that he was at heart an aristocrat.

    Also, his last stuff was color pictures of pieces of litter in gutters. Is that a 'harsh reality'? I don't really think so.

  2. Thanks Matt. That actually helps a lot. And I love the Kirstein quote. Makes me wonder how today's reality will look old.