IntoTheDarkroom sees Alessia Scacchi take in the excellence of the American photographer Walker Evans (1903-1975). Her Alessia looks at that most contentious and amorphus concept/idea-The American Dream through Walker Evans’ famous image of an American gas station. In it Alessia argues that Walker Evans predicts the demise of this so called ‘dream’. It is a poignant postulation. Indeed there is a signfiance in the postulation when one considers the political and social climate in today’s America where re-occuring collective nightmares are being lived (by some).
Walker Evans was an important American photographer and artist. The debate regarding the status of photography as a proper artistic medium is out of date: photographic language has assumed its legitimate place in art.
Walker Evans adopted “straight photography”. The photographic style refuses every form of decoration and manipulation of the image. This type of photography was first adopted by Alfred Stieglitz (1864- 1946) during the Photo-Secession, a movement against the subjective prospective in photography. With affection he was quoted as saying- “Photography my passion, the search for truth, my obsession.”
Evans is known for his extensive reportage work of the United States during the economic crisis of 1930. In his work he sought to use a direct language for “pure” non-artificial images. But of course images can and do lie, it’s impossible to have a fully neutral picture. If we think about the moment of shooting, even the decision of the subject is a personal choice. It would be too naive to believe that it’s just an impartial gesture. We are in front of what the Italian journalist Michele Smargiassi (1957) calls “an authentic lie”. I’m talking about an image which is supposed to be true, but it isn’t. The image of The Falling Soldier by Robert Capa (1913 – 1954) is a great exemple.
Walker Evans believed in the power of photography as an instrument of truth. He took part in the Farm Security Administration, created in 1937 by President Rooselvelt. This big committee was intended to report on the situation of rural areas under American government control. All the photographers involved had specific guidelines to follow. Surely it wasn’t in the name of freedom of expression. An artist after all must be able to express a personal idea, a vision, create a symbolic language and establish a connection with the audience. Art is communication.
Is the American society evolving to a meaningless world?
How is Walker Evans considered to be an artist? If we consider his telling image Gas station, Reedsville” (1936), it becomes clear. It is an apparently normal view of an American street. Is it a document or a piece of artwork? The reading of the image starts from the left and the eye goes to the round signboard on top. Then the phone lines draw the eye down again. The structure of the composition is opened to different eye-paths. All these paths keep the spectator involved in the image. If we observe it carefully and then we look away, the words in our mind are “American”, “gas”, “telephone”, “connections”, but there aren’t any people around. This contradiction makes us wonder about the meaning of these human signs. It seems to be a prediction: a summary of the fear about the future. Is the American society evolving to a meaningless world? The emptiness is makes us question. The work demonstrates how indirect writing can be expressive. The light is not dramatic, so there isn’t a strong critique about the society. The fear is still suspended, it hasn’t occured yet.
One can argue that Walker Evans’s work is about the end of the American Dream. A dream that was pushed and believed with vigour because they felt it was true. But Walker Evans’ image sends a jolt of reality coarsing through the viewer’s eyes and mind. More than that, his sensibility, his ability to give dignity, the attention to the under lower class, all show his ability to see deeply under the surface.