Walker Evans (American, St. Louis, Missouri 1903 - 1975 New Haven)
Sidewalk in Vicksburg, Mississippi, 1936
Artist's name and date inscribed below the image in graphite: Walker Evans 1935
Gelatin silver print, mounted on (contemporary) board
Image: 6 1/8 x 7 9/16 in. (15.4 x 19.2 cm)
Mount: 18 1/16 x 15 in. (45.8 x 38 cm)
Charles F. Olney Fund, 1969
The photographs of Walker Evans have deeply informed our collective image of the southeastern United States during the Depression. Sidewalk in Vicksburg, Mississippi is an image of material decay, vernacular signs, and social complexity--inseparable aspects of Evans's view of the rural South.
A building facade of tattered clapboard, paper, and cloth reveals intricate layers of neglect and use, disintegration and repair. Five men stand or sit in front of the structure, individuals in dress, posture, and physiognomy, while collectively indifferent to the camera. They each turn with intent to the left or right, to an invisible point beyond the frame of the image.
As in most of Evans's work, Sidewalk in Vicksburg, Mississippi is comprised of subtly calibrated contrasts at once material and cultural: slick, peeling advertisements and rough, disintegrating cloth; a white man in a motorcar, overwhelming one-third of the image; and four black men, each claiming a bay of the improvised facade.
Sidewalk in Vicksburg, Mississippi was not meant to be viewed as an isolated image, but as part of a larger project of photographic documentation. Evans made the photograph during a brief period of work (1935-38) for the Historical Section of the Farm Security Administration. The newly created section hired photographers such as Evans, Ben Shahn (1898-1969), Arthur Rothstein (b. 1915), and Dorothea Lange to provide the FSA with images that might help inspire national support for New Deal agricultural policy. 1 In addition to their use in official reports, the FSA photographs were published in large-format photo magazines such as Look and Life, and thus had an immense impact on the public vision of the Depression's effects in rural America. 2
A print of Sidewalk in Vicksburg, Mississippi was among the one hundred photographs that Evans chose for exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1938. Walker Evans: American Photographs was the first exhibition that the museum had devoted to the work of a single photographer. Evans took complete control of the installation, cropping, framing, and arranging the works according to a calculated plan of composition and sequence. In a significant departure from the photo-journals' captioning of images with observations of "human interest," Evans provided only numbers, which corresponded to a separate checklist of titles and dates. 3 The photographs' significance was thus dependent on the visual and thematic organization of the entire installation, and on the contrapuntal play between specific images. Evans placed Sidewalk in Vicksburg, Mississippi immediately after Sidewalk and Shopfront, New Orleans of 1935, an image of a New Orleans matron standing cheerfully among the stripes of her barbershop storefront, framed by a tidy grid of ironwork balustrades, plate glass, cracking stone, and bright paint. 4
The exhibition was accompanied by an illustrated catalogue, also organized by Evans, although arranged differently than the exhibited photographs. 5 Evans chose only eighty-seven of the exhibition's one hundred works for the catalogue, and often substituted an image from a variant negative. Thus the catalogue's Sidewalk in Vicksburg, Mississippi was shot at a slightly different moment than the Oberlin image, and has additional incident--a barbershop storefront with stenciled signage--at the left. 6 The catalogue's essay, written by Lincoln Kirstein (in collaboration with Evans), is an important polemical document in the history of photography. It calls for a photographic practice at once socially edifying in content, and straightforward, detached, and undramatic in address. It also emphasizes the "intention, logic, continuity, climax, sense, and perfection" that informed Evans's organization of the images, thus producing "a powerful monument to our moment." Evans placed Sidewalk in Vicksburg, Mississippi within a sequence of images of common objects and interiors, and of portraits of men and women in rural or urban settings, alone or in groups, wealthy or poor, "with all their clear, hideous and beautiful detail." 7
Walker Evans was born in St. Louis in 1903 to a well-to-do, puritanical family. In 1922 he graduated from the Phillips Academy, Andover, Mass., and began to study literature at Williams College. He left Williams after one year of study and moved to New York, taking on various odd jobs. In 1926 Evans moved to Paris, intending to become a writer, and attended literature classes at the Sorbonne. 8 He returned to New York in 1927 and clerked for a stockbrokerage firm until 1929.
Evans began taking photographs in 1928, using a small handheld camera. In 1929 he began a lifelong friendship with Lincoln Kirstein (1907-1997), then still a student at Harvard but already a force in American cultural criticism. In 1930 Evans's first publication of photographs appeared in a book of poetry by Hart Crane (The Bridge). He began to photograph nineteenth-century American houses, investing his subject with the descriptive, archival interest in vernacular detail that would characterize much of his later work. These works were influenced by the French photographer Eugène Atget, whose work Evans saw for the first time in 1930.
Evans's first commissioned work dates from 1933, with his documentation of the political unrest in Cuba. Around this time, he began to work with an eight-by-ten view camera. In 1935 Evans made his first expedition to the southern United States, and began to photograph antebellum architecture. In the summer and fall of that year he also took photographs for the Resettlement Administration (later the Farm Security Administration, or FSA) in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and the South.
In 1936 the writer James Agee requested that Evans take the photographs to accompany a photo-essay on sharecroppers, which had been commissioned by Fortune Magazine. Agee and Evans stayed with three sharecropper families in Hale County, Alabama, for three weeks during the summer of 1936. Agee's article on the experience was rejected by Fortune. In 1941, an expanded version of the article, along with Evans's photographs, was published as Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Public attention was then focused on the war, however, and it was not until 1960, with the publication of another edition of the book, which included an expanded section of photographs, that the joint work met with great success.
After the 1930s' photographs of the rural South, Evans continued to expore photography as a medium for addressing and framing subjects of modern life. He used the large-view camera less frequently, replacing it with a two and one-quarter twin-lens reflex camera and a 35 mm camera. He took photographs in the New York subway with a camera hidden in his coat (1938; published in 1966 as Many Are Called); and industrial landscapes from the window of a moving train (1950).
In 1938 Evans's photographs were the subject of the first solo exhibition of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and in 1971 John Szarkowski organized a retrospective there of Evans's work. Walker Evans died on 10 April 1975 in New Haven.
Kismaric, Carole. Walker Evans. New York, 1993.
Mora, Gilles, and John T. Hill. Walker Evans: The Hungry Eye. New York, 1993.
Purchased from the Robert Schoelkopf Gallery, New York, in 1969
Selected literature on Sidewalk in Vicksburg, Mississippi from the same and variant negatives
Walker Evans: American Photographs. Exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1938, p. 52 (from a variant negative).
Brix, Michael. Walker Evans, America. Exh. cat., Stadtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich, 1990-91, p. 46 (from a variant negative).
Chevrier, Jean-François, Allan Sekula, and Benjamin H. D. Buchloh. Walker Evans and Dan Graham. Exh. cat., Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art, Rotterdam, 1992, p. 89 (reproduces a print in the Museum of Modern Art, New York, inv. 297.63; from the same negative as the AMAM print).
Mora, Gilles, and John T. Hill. Walker Evans: The Hungry Eye. New York, 1993, no. 75 (reproduces a contact print from the same negative, but with a slightly different cropping from the AMAM print; location not given).
Printed on silver gelatin developing-out paper (see gelatin silver print, the photograph is most likely a contact print, not an enlargement from a smaller negative. Evans usually worked with eight-by-ten negatives during this period.
The photograph is dry-mounted on two-ply contemporary board with a strongly discolored core, probably acidic. The dry-mount adhesive has discolored, but there is no evident discoloration or fading of the image. Two small lumps in the lower right corner of the photograph have been caused by the accumulation of debris between the mat board and print. These raised areas are slightly abraded.
1. There is a vast literature on the FSA photographs. See Roy Emerson Stryker and Nancy Wood, In This Proud Land: America 1935-1943 as Seen in the FSA Photographs (New York, 1973), pp. 7-19, for a factual overview of the FSA photographic project from the point of view of its director, Roy Stryker; and also Maren Strange, "The Record Itself: Farm Security Administration Photography and the Transformation of Rural Life," in Official Images: New Deal Photographs (Washington, D.C., 1987). Evans's disputes with the project's overtly political agenda have been widely cited. See, for example, Michael Brix, Walker Evans, America (exh. cat., Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich, 1990-91), pp. 10-13.
2. At least one variant of Oberlin's image of Sidewalk in Vicksburg, Mississippi was placed on file with the FSA: see Walker Evans, Photographs for the Farm Security Administration 1935-1938 > (New York, 1973), no. 130. It has yet to be determined if or in what context the FSA published this image.
3. Gilles Mora and John T. Hill, Walker Evans: The Hungry Eye (New York, 1993), pp. 160-61.
4. Reproduced in Gilles Mora and John T. Hill, Walker Evans: The Hungry Eye (New York, 1993), p. 169, no. 76.
5. Compare the organization of the exhibition as discussed and reconstructed in Gilles Mora and John T. Hill, Walker Evans: The Hungry Eye (New York, 1993), pp. 160-97, with that of the catalogue, Walker Evans: American Photographs (reprint, New York, 1975).
6. See Walker Evans: American Photographs (reprint, New York, 1975), p. 52.
7. Lincoln Kirstein, "Photographs of America: Walker Evans," in Walker Evans: American Photographs (reprint, New York, 1975), p. 187.
8. The detached realism of Gustave Flaubert and the ambivalent modernism of Baudelaire profoundly impressed Evans, whose later photographic work would be informed by these literary models.