Essay 2 “To be nostalgic is to be sentimental. To be interested in what you see that is passing out of history, even if it’s a trolley car youVe found, that’s not an act of nostalgia,” says Walker Evans. l Throughout his photographic career Walker Evans was Just that, interested in the history that he lived through. As an FSA photographer, Evans mission was to “introduce America to America” and showcase “the reality of its own time and place in history’ says Stryker, the leader of the FSA movement. 2 Evans produced images that revealed Americas’ despair in the depression, but also the hope for the future.
In the photograph “Alabama Cotton Tenant Farmer Family’, Evans portrays an American farming family during the Great Depression. (Walker Evans, Alabama Cotton Tenant Farmer Family, 1941) Though many would view this photograph as a social documentary photograph, Walker Evans disagrees. In an interview with Leslie Katz, Walker discusses a vital distinction in how he views his photographs, “Documentary? That’s a very sophisticated and misleading word. And not really clear. You have to have a sophisticated ear to receive that word. The term should be documentary style. An example of a literal document would be a police hotograph of a murder scene.
You see, a document has use, whereas art is really useless. Therefore art is never a document, though it certainly can adopt that style. ” Therefore, the photograph of the Alabama Cotton Tenant Farmer Family is not a document of the Great Depression, but instead a piece of art that has a documentary style. This distinction conflicts with the purpose of the FSA photography, but also allows the viewer to gain a greater appreciation for the artistic quality of Evan’s photograph. 3 Evans was not Just taking photos to capture a moment in history like ther FSA photographers, but instead to capture the art in the history itself.
And if you asked Evans what the purpose of this photograph was, he would say there is none and that it is Just a piece of art. l This photograph, taken as a portrait, places the viewer inside of the home with Evans and this family suffering from the Great Depression. The setting is so simple, yet powerful as well. The ordinary objects enhance the photograph and the message that it is sending. The family is not only knowledgeable of the photographer, but they are posed for the photograph as well. The family is together as a unit and through this photo one can tell that they work hard for each other each and every day.
But despite the unity, the individual faces stand out in the photograph. Both women look worn out from the days work and the heavy bags under their eyes show sleep deprivation and exhaustion. The wrinkles in the father’s forehead reveal concern for the familys well being even though he desperately is trying to hold strong despite his overall weary appearance. The standing child’s face reveals that he is old enough to realize the struggle that his amily is going through and has seen the impact that the depression has had on their livelihood. The middle child though, shows almost no concern for the well being of his family.
His face is carefree and is like a light in the darkness of the photograph even though he has no pants to put on for the photograph. He is not old enough to And the baby, asleep in his mothers’ arms, is totally dependent on the others in this photo for his wellbeing. Each member Joined together through this simple photograph. It appears as though Evans is taking a family portrait, which adds to the power of the picture. Even though the family appears to have put on their best attire, still the sadness and poverty shines through. The family, covered in tattered clothing and weary faces, still appear as one.
Evans uses the setting of the photograph to contribute to the art. The contrast of the light verse the darkness is balanced throughout the photograph. The other side of the doorway is pitch black and a mystery to the viewer. The family is all each of them has and whatever is through that door is unknown to the viewer and irrelevant. The times were dark and the depression was overwhelming, but the window is bringing in light that is the hope for the future. Most of the faces in the photograph are in the darkness, but the young boy in the front of the photo with the smile on his face is covered in light.
The family photographs in the background reveal to the audience the purpose behind the struggle and the pain through the depression. The family Just desires to provide for their loved ones. The worn down home suggests the ultimate struggle between the family and the depression that is consuming them. The floorboards are torn revealing the dirt in their home and the single bed is not big enough to sleep all of them, but yet the family perseveres. “Alabama Cotton Tenant Farmer Family’ reveals family that has nothing but each other.
The intrusiveness of the photograph into the home and life of these people reveals the true nature of the rural families in America. 4 Evans held nothing back and because of this, viewers of the photo feel like they personally knew this Cotton Tenant Farmer Family. The purpose of FSA photography was to document all aspects of America during the New Deal and the Great Depression and though Evans argues that his photographs are not documents, his photo reveals the true state of farming American families. This makes Evans photo a good FSA photograph in itself, as well as a wonderful piece of art.
Despite the fact that both the family and Evans have passed, the photograph stands through time as art and as a tribute to a time in our nation’s history. 5 Thompson, a studier of Evans, states, “Perhaps part of what Evans meant in making his careful distinction between documentary and documentary style, between document and art, between useful and useless was nothing more than this: art is long, but life is short. “6 Art, such as this photograph by Evans, will last for eternity not to inform its’ viewers about the Great Depression, but instead to be cherished as a piece of artwork. (Walker Evans, Alabama Cotton Tenant Farmer Family, 1941)