Walker Evans-FSA Photography

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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 you’ve found, that’s not an act of nostalgia,” says Walker Evans.1 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 photograph 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 other 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

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