A few days ago, I wrote on American Photographs, an exhibit of the Depression-era photographs of Walker Evans, and my surprise at seeing how different these often-reproduced pictures looked in a museum setting. Well, readers, today I’m going to discuss Evans’s interest in symbols, and then what has become of representations he influenced.
Many of the pictures Evans took of businesses have a symbol that conveys the trade conducted along with the words telling viewers what was done there. The semiotics of such representation interested him. Many of his representations work with symbols and semiotics—so much so that I actually did a bit of research ‘cause I was curious to see if anybody had written about this aspect of his work. It doesn’t look like it has been. So, briefly, I’m going to!
Remember semiotics, reader? They are a type of symbol that conveys meaning without words. If you see a cluster of pink of red valentines (in chocolate boxes, cards, or balloons) in the local drugstore, for example, you do not need to be told “they are for Valentine’s day.” A pink or red valentine is associated with the holiday enough for the connection to be made wordlessly—purely by the symbol.
I think he is playing with symbolism in this intriguing photograph. Obviously, this is a photography studio, of a sort. The manicules point to the door where would-be portrait subjects walk in. (The idea of “photos” overwhelms the picture, to me, but it appears to be the entry to a driving school as well.) Like many of his photographs, it is of a business. But it’s also a photograph, unlike the others, that is about photography: the studio mirrors and recapitulates the actions of taking a picture. You walk into a dark place that seems to be in some way reminiscent of the aperture of a camera. Indeed, it is an aperture, in the sense of opening.
So Evans, early in his career, is having fun with the idea of photography and what auteur and subject do to make a photography. It’s even multiply determined, with the two manicules putting the entrant into their sights.
But the legacy of his photography has become, in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, divested of play of European influence, or theory. Weather-beaten signage and old advertising logo’s like those pictured by Evans have been, for several decades now, a preferred décor in mid-level burger joints (those that proudly describe themselves so).
Indeed, what most struck me about this exhibit was the change in what the representations evoke. The same qualities that represented income inequality in the 1930s—the poor, weather-beaten quality of the wood and signage—now represents a sanitized past in those mid-level restaurants. A cheery past where 5¢ a photograph means that objects and services back then were cheap as water, easily affordable, and for everybody.
The forms are thus a fit subject for nostalgia. What they embody in these restaurants is a type of American optimism that takes posted, weather-beaten signs and prices as a guarantee of obstacles overcome, because stuff was so laughably low in price—and because history tells us that the hardships of the 1930s were eventually overcome. Perhaps this décor is a form of wish that obstacles in the present will also dissolve.