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Walker Evans' iconic photos of the Great Depression at Cantor Arts Center

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Walker Evans, Alabama Tenant Farmer, 1936 Gelatin silver print. Lent by Elizabeth and Robert J. Fisher, MBA ’80.
Photo Credit: 
© Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

In public programs, Stanford scholars share their views on the groundbreaking artistic endeavors of photographer Walker Evans.

As he stares out from the darkness behind him, the defeated expression in the man's eyes pulls the viewer into a time of extreme hardship. Although this stark black-and-white photograph was taken nearly 80 years ago, the current recession has brought renewed meaning to this and the many other iconic Depression-era photographs of American photographer Walker Evans (1903-1975). From today until April 8, Stanford's Cantor Arts Center will showcase more than 125 of Evans' influential prints as well as an extensive selection of his original books and magazines. 

This exhibition, entitled simply "Walker Evans," will present his inspired visual documentation of the Great Depression along with a display of his collaboration with American author and journalist James Agee on the renowned book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. In 1936, Evans and Agee ventured to Alabama on a journalistic endeavor for Fortune magazine to document the lives of three tenant farmer families during the Depression.  As the project progressed, it became evident that this was not going to be a traditional photo essay  – rather, it was an experiment that was pushing the boundaries of photojournalism.

The resulting 400-plus-page opus chronicles the families with a combination of compelling photographs and descriptive text.  Although the two disciplines work together to answer many questions about the reality of the time, the unique juxtaposition raises questions as well.  To help readers work through these questions in Agee's dense and complex book, the "Walker Evans" exhibition will feature a free book discussion on Saturday, Feb. 25, with Stanford English Professor Gavin Jones.  Jones, who examines Agee's and Evans' work through a literary lens in his book American Hungers: The Problem of Poverty in U.S. Literature, will lead attendees in a discussion.

Disjointed lives of the poor

Many artists during the New Deal era wished to portray the poor to gain empathy and support for the experimental political program.  Agee and Evans, however, saw this as a crude and manipulative practice, and defied it by "respecting the moral integrity of the poor while recognizing in these tenants something transcendentally human, making them more than just the tools of political propaganda," said Jones.  

The artists attempted to achieve this goal through a variety of investigational techniques.  One of the most apparent was the decision to separate the photos from the narrative descriptions in the text. Evans' photographs are placed together at the beginning of the book with no titles, followed by Agee's lengthy written description of the pictured families. 

Jones pointed out that this disjointed format highlights the beauty of Evans' minimalist photographs, but also makes it more difficult to follow the story of the families. "The important point is to recognize the reasons for the difficulty: to expose the problems and contradictions inherent in middle-class desires to understand and explain the poor," said Jones.  "The style embodies rather than represents these dilemmas – it tries to make readers feel and experience them personally." 

What made Let Us Now Praise Famous Men one of the most influential studies of the 1930s was not its organization, but rather its content.   Agee was one of the first authors to depict those affected by the economic situation as individuals with feelings and lives, rather than just victims. "He [Agee] sees the poor as beautiful, but does not believe they are capable of recognizing their own beauty," said Jones.  "Sometimes it seems that he finds them beautiful not despite but because they cannot appreciate their own value." This is just one of many interpretations of Agee's words. 

However, it is undeniable that this book would not have been as influential without the interplay of text and art.  "Agee's text is an essential guide to Evans' photographs because Agee includes in his descriptions everything that Evans removes from his photographs," Jones said. Agee's words influence the way the audience views Evan' photographs, and vice versa.  The tension that results from this interaction is where the social and political statements of the book truly stem from – statements that are still relevant today.

Interactive photo forum

The online "Walker Evans of the Week" program will be available for exhibition viewers who cannot attend the book discussion or who want to delve further into Evans' life and work. This project will highlight one piece of Evans' artwork from the exhibition each week on the Cantor Arts Center's Flickr page.  Each of these entries will feature commentary from Annie Ronan, a Ph.D. candidate in Stanford's Art & Art History Department.  This format will allow the audience to read Ronan's commentary and respond with questions or discussion points.

By Kelsey Geiser