Walker Evans

(United States of America 03 Nov 1903 – 10 Apr 1975)

Untitled (street scene, Southern city)

Location
Not on display
Further information

‘Documentary? That’s a very sophisticated and misleading word, and not really clear … The term should be ‘documentary style’. An example of a literal document would be a police photograph of a murder scene. You see, a document has use, whereas art is really useless. Therefore art is never a document, though certainly it can adopt that style.’ Walker Evans 1971 1

Growing up in Missouri, Ohio, Chicago and New York gave Walker Evans a broad experience of American life which inspired his conviction in the nation as a unitary phenomenon. After graduating he travelled to Paris to experience the bohemia and intellectualism of the 1920s and to pursue his literary interests. Frustrated in his desire to become a writer, he took up photography on his return to New York. His photographic work reveals a deeply held belief in the possibility of depicting and defining the American experience. Evans has been compared to Walt Whitman and Mark Twain for his vision of an America forged on nobility and dignity yet riddled with racial and economic inequalities.

When Evans photographed ‘Untitled (street scene, Southern city)’ he had been recording the effects of the depression, capturing the character of America as expressed through its buildings, people and signs mainly in the south-eastern states for the Farm Security Administration project. Strikingly direct, Evans invites close attention to the particularities of both subjects, to the truths rendered in the fragment of an advertising poster pasted on a wall featuring two Caucasian faces, smiling larger than life, and a portrait of an anonymous African–American man at the edge of the frame who with his face averted looks over his shoulder. Cropped to achieve symmetry of form, Evans’s carefully construed composition, wit of juxtaposition and incongruities suggests a world of meaning unfolding beyond the frame and invites consideration not only of the great chasm between myths of American identity and the reality that is lived, but of the relationship between ‘artistic’ and documentary practice in photography itself.

1. Katz L 1971, ‘An interview with Walker Evans’, in Goldberg V ed c1981, ‘Photography in print: writings from 1816 to the present’, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque p 364

© Art Gallery of New South Wales Photography Collection Handbook, 2007

Year
circa 1936, printed later
Media
Photograph
Medium
gelatin silver photograph
Dimensions
15.7 x 18.0 cm image; 20.1 x 25.2 cm sheet
Signature & date
Not signed. Not dated.
Credit
Purchased 1988
Accession number
153.1988