American Photographs is a selection of photographs taken by American photographer Walker Evans in the years prior to 1938 when the images were published.
At the time of taking these photographs Walker Evans was employed by the American government to document the effects of the depression, particularly in the poorer southern states, to show to the politicians in Washington.
In 1938 a selection of these photographs were exhibited by the American Musem of Modern Art under the name American Photographs. They also published the book of the images under the same name.
I purchased the 75th anniversary copy of this book, published in 2013, also by the Museum of Modern Art. Like the original book, there is only one photograph on the right-hand page when opened, with a plain white sheet on the left so as not to.distract from the images. The photographs are then catalogued at the end of each section.
The book is split into two parts, the first section being related to the people of North America, whilst the second half concentrates on the buildings and vernacular architecture of the country.
I have to admit that to me the first half of this book makes uncomfortable viewing. Not only does it show the poverty of the time but it also shows the even poorer status of black Americans in that era.
As an example, this picture of a playbill contains a cartoon of black people which demonstrates the white American impression of them as servants and minstrels. In the book, this photograph is cropped to just the cartoon, which makes it even more offensive.
By comparison, a photograph of a citizen of Havana in Cuba shows the black population in a completely different light.
The original exhibition consisted of 100 photographs whilst the book only has 87, and only 54 are common to both. (Sawyer 2013). Also whilst the pictures in the book are consistent in size, those in the exhibition varied. Evans often selected different images of the same subject, a good example being Alabama Cotton Tenant Farmer Wife :
The first portrait of Allie Mae Burrows appears in American Photographs, whilst the second appears in his later book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Either or both may have appeared in the exhibition.
The second section of the book consists of photographs of built America. Covering subjects as diverse as car parks full of model T Fords, shanty towns, churches and industrial areas, it sums up the condition of North America at that time.
It is interesting to note that the division of the book into separate sections did not apply to the exhibition in 1938. Instead the images were grouped in relationship to their subjects and geographical locations. The 1938 exhibition was also the first one at the Museum of Modern Art to be dedicated to a single artist.
Walker Evans continued his photography taking pictures discretely on the New York subway resulting in the book Many are Called. He was also one of the first photographers to adopt instant photography using the Land Polaroid system. He died in 1975 at the age of 71.
- 2013 Walker Evans American Photographs The Museum of Modern Art
- 2013 Drew Sawyer Two Views of Walker Evans’s American Photographs The Museum of Modern Art