Part I: Defining an American Style

Art Dealer, Curator and Writer Charles Guice expands on his commentary from Nueva Luz volume 17:1, “Transforming Destiny Into Awareness: The Photographs of Baldomero Fernandez, Thomas Holton and Alex Leme.” Part photo-history and part ‘now,’ Charles provides a critical background for understanding the work of this younger generation of photographers and their view of the U.S. This is the first blog post in a five part series.

Transforming Destiny Into Awareness: Defining an American Style

On Thursday, October 24, 1929, following a month-long decline in prices, the U.S. Stock Market began a catastrophic, four-day collapse. From a record close of 381 points on September 9 to October 29, “Black Tuesday”, the Dow Jones Industrial Average Index slid more than 39 percent. And by July 8, 1932, some 34 months earlier, the Index had plummeted even further, to more than 89 percent.

The unprecedented rise in stock prices just prior to the crash inveigled cooks and magnates alike, and the thousands who had invested lost billions of dollars of wealth in just a matter of days. In the U.S., one in four was unemployed, businesses were forced to close; bank loans fell into default and millions were made homeless.

Walker Evans, Allie Mae Burroughs, wife of cotton sharecropper. Hale County, Alabama. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection, [LC-USF342-T01-008139-A]
Walker Evans
Allie Mae Burroughs, wife of cotton sharecropper. Hale County, Alabama, 1936. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection [LC-USF342-T01-008139-A]
After President Hoover’s policies repeatedly failed to stimulate the economy, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was swept into office in the 1932 presidential election. The new President of the United States introduced an assortment of economic programs and initiatives known collectively as the New Deal.

In an effort to illustrate its impact and effectiveness in rural communities, the Resettlement Administration (later renamed the Farm Security Administration) was charged with documenting small-towns and rural areas. And Walker Evans, the man widely considered to be the forbearer of the American style of documentary photography, became renowned for capturing that dramatic period in history.

After taking the occasional snapshot, Evans began photographing seriously in 1928. In 1935, he accepted a temporary position working for the U.S. Department of the Interior photographing a resettlement community of unemployed coal miners in West Virginia, which had been built by the federal government as part of the President’s initiatives.

Two years later, Evans was working full time for the Resettlement Administration under the direction of Roy Stryker with a notable group of photographers, including Dorothea Lange, Gordon Parks and Ben Shahn.

It was during this period that he was to make one of his most significant and lasting marks on the documentary style; Evans challenged Stryker, whose own intent was chiefly to promote social change, to develop a core of images that were “pure record not propaganda,” going so far as to generate lists of subjects that Stryker would eventually use to create shooting scripts.

Evans photographed throughout the South, including Arkansas, Tennessee and Georgia, and in parts of the Northeast. But he garnered the most recognition for a series of photographs he made of Alabama sharecroppers during a leave of absence, which eventually became the foundation for the book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.

Walker Evans, Photographer's window of penny portraits. Birmingham, Alabama. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection [LC-USF342-T01-008097-A DLC]
Walker Evans
Photographer’s window of penny portraits. Birmingham, Alabama, 1936. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection [LC-USF342-T01-008097-A DLC]
The Museum of Modern Art mounted a retrospective of Evans’ work in 1938, publishing American Photographs simultaneously. The book, long “the benchmark against which all photographic monographs are judged[1],” accurately reflected Evan’s view of a country wrestling in the grip of the Great Depression—from the cotton sharecroppers of Alabama to the flappers on the streets of Manhattan. American Photographs was immediately celebrated as the seminal work in his career, firmly establishing Evans as one of the most influential photographers of his era.

In 1955, the Swiss-born photographer Robert Frank secured a grant from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation to “photograph freely throughout the United States, using the miniature camera exclusively, the making of a broad voluminous picture record of things American, past and present.” Frank acknowledged Walker Evans’ influence, particularly American Photographs, to which he attributed “his aim and achievement.[2]

When I first looked at Walker Evans’ photographs, I thought of something Malraux wrote: ‘To transform destiny into awareness.’ One is embarrassed to want so much for oneself. But how else are you going to justify your failure and your effort.[3]

But Evans’ influence had been more than simply referential. The elder photographer, who Frank had met three years earlier in 1952, had encouraged and helped him to apply for the award. In addition, as Tod Papageorge notes in an essay on Evans’ influence on Frank and his work, Evans had to insist that Frank apply, going so far as to write one of his letters of recommendation—this despite the fact that Frank was intent on returning to Europe.

Evans prevailed and Frank received the grant, the first foreigner to be awarded the prestigious fellowship. Along with the older photographer’s encouragement, Evans’ “consistency of interest, intent and vision”, and the 31-year old photographer’s previous journeys (he had photographed as he had travelled throughout Peru, Spain, the United Kingdom and France, focusing on its people and preferring “things that move,”) Frank was uniquely prepared for what was to follow.

Next, Part II: This Crazy American Sensation

[1]  Department of Photographs. “Walker Evans (1903–1975)”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2004)

[2]  Baier, Leslie. “Visions of Fascination and Despair: The Relationship between Walker Evans and Robert Frank.” Art Journal. Vol. 41, No. 1, Photography and the Scholar/Critic (Spring, 1981), pp. 55-63.

[3]  Frank, Robert. “A Statement.” U.S. Camera Annual. 1958. p115.

To learn more about Baldomero Fernandez, Alex Leme and Thomas Holton featured in this blog series, please visit En Foco’s website

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