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Standing in the footsteps of Walker Evans

Phil Coomes | 10:11 UK time, Friday, 14 May 2010

New Orleans in 2010

Recently I was in the US to shoot a few stories and one of those took me through New Orleans. As I was passing through I was of course drawn to the architecture. It's certainly a place like no other, and one I haven't visited before.

Much is of course changed since the devastating floods of 2005 and whilst in town a colleague and I met up with a few of those helping to rebuild the city, but that's for another day.

On the photographic front I was drawn to look again at the pictures of the town by Walker Evans. Now Evans is one of those photographers you either get or don't. Many just can't see why his work is held in such high regard.

Evans is best known for the pictures he shot for the Farm Security Administration documenting amongst other things the effects of the Great Depression in the US of the 1930s and for his book with writer James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.

His portrait of Allie Mae Burroughs, a cotton tenant farmer's wife in Alabama, was part of Evans' collaboration with the writer Agee whose words gave context to the pictures, he described Allie Mae as a mother "whose body already at 27 is so wrung and drained and old, a scrawny infinitely tired, delicate animal". Evans attempt at objectivity and Agee's personal responses makes for a powerful mix.

Painted Doorway of French Opera Barber Shop on Bourbon Street, New Orleans, Louisiana

But to return to his New Orleans work then the shot above of a shop front in 1935 bears all his trademarks from the work of that time. Full frontal photographs of buildings which are often covered in text, usually in the form of advertising signs.

Evans photographs are at fist glance simple depictions of a place. The barber shop focuses on the sign writing, the poorly spaced words, the home made feel of the whole affair, the uneven stripes. Evans has used this as the central theme to hold the frame together, neatly dividing the space.

The other Evans picture below is also from New Orleans and again a passing glance makes the viewer wonder why he has framed it so tightly. Yet, what is the picture about. Again the central theme is the text, the words, and the iconography of the street. Seen today it looks quaint, yet then it was as fresh as a shot of a supermarket sign is today, or a shot of building condemned following the floods.

New Orleans by Walker Evans

And that's where the documentary angle kicks in. Evans photographs uses the signs to signify what is available at a time of great depression. The pictures are as straight and objective as they can be. Yes Evans has chosen what to photograph, editing the world to his vision, but they are none the less a record of those times that should be treasured.


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