This post is going to continue my museum adventures. Last year, I went to the Museum of Modern Art to see American Photographs by Walker Evans, an exhibit that recreated his ground-breaking show of the 1930s, also at MOMA. (Last year’s exhibit celebrated the 75th anniversary of that exhibit, also called American Photographs. The photographs were later captured in his book with James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, on southern sharecroppers during the 1930s.
For most of us, a lot of these photographs are quite familiar, particularly of the farm families in Alabama. The photograph on the left, of Allie Mae Burroughs, for example, I think of in the same category as Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother (below on the right); a kind of “we look at the 1930s poor and in them, see the human face” moment that have served as examples of American photography in the American century as long as I’ve been an adult. They exerted a lot of influence.
So the surprise I’ll be talking about in this blog is how different they looked from what I thought I had gazed on so frequently, and how different Evans’s photography seemed as a result.
And to top it off, they are surrounded by a great deal of white matte backing that dwarfs the image, so that the entire representation is about 8 ½ x 11, surrounded by silver frame. Part of the impact of seeing poverty in these two photographs has always been the “we look at the poor and see their human face” reciprocal gaze (or, semi-reciprocal semi-gaze).
But the size of the Evans photographs nearly obviates the possibility of reciprocity, as if we were looking through the wrong end of the telescope. (I have also included a picture of the Burroughs photograph on the wall—yet even that doesn’t convey the full effect of all that white space surrounding the figure. shot on the wall) The original size distances us from the subjects far more than their more conventional reproduction—as bigger—does.
The American Photographs project always seemed like an offshoot of American realism and filled with sympathy toward those portrayed. The sizing makes it clear that these are as much representations of another piece of realism, though—the scientific specimen—as much as of the human face. Evans seems much less sympathetic toward them as a result.
The museum’s notes on the exhibition also decenter these photographs slightly from an American context, making it clear that Evans was influenced by French photographers and their work documenting the working class. In fact, that piece of the exhibit shifted my idea of what Evans main reciprocity focus was: more on the art of other photographers then on his subjects, perhaps.
Part II soon!