(United States of America 03 Nov 1903 – 10 Apr 1975)
15.7 x 18.0 cm image; 20.1 x 25.2 cm sheet
‘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
Judy Annear, American beauty: from Muybridge to Goldin, Sydney, 2003. no catalogue numbers
Judy Annear, From the street: photographs from the collection, Sydney, 1996, (illus.). no catalogue numbers
Martyn Jolly, Photography: Art Gallery of New South Wales Collection, 'International photo-documentary', pg.151-167, Sydney, 2007, 152, 160 (illus.).
Judith Keller, Walker Evans: The Getty Museum Collection, London, 1995, 177 (illus.). plate no. 582
Works from the Photography Collection, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 10 Feb 1989–15 May 1989
International Photographs from the Collection, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 12 Jan 1991–14 Apr 1991
From the Street - Photographs From the Collection, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 27 Apr 1996–14 Jul 1996
American Beauty: from Muybridge to Goldin, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 05 Jun 2003–27 Jul 2003