Stark contrasts

Photo exhibit captures trials of Great Depression

Richard Keenan
February 8, 2007

The current exhibit of the photographs by Walker Evans at the Museo Nazionale Alinari della Fotografia offers a view of cultural history largely forgotten by the current generation, for whom the United States has always been a formidable world power. The Great Depression of the 1930s, which lasted the better part of a decade and ended only with America’s entry into World War II, saw much of America’s rural population struggling to subsist without adequate food, housing or jobs. These photographs first came to public attention in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the book Evans created thanks to a collaborative effort with James Agee. Agee’s text juxtaposed with Evan’s stark, black and white photographs offers eloquent testimony to those troubled times.


Most of the photographs in the current exhibit were taken between 1935 and 1937, when Evans and Agee were traveling through the southern United States, subsidized by the Farm Security Administration, one of the many government agencies created by President Franklin Roosevelt to address the problems facing the American economy. One noteworthy work is Penny Picture Display (1936), a collage of photographs taken by the machines commonly found at carnivals and amusement arcades. There are some fifty photographs in the collage of men, women and children. Well-fed, smiling, unafraid of the future, these happy faces are in stark contrast with the faces of tenant farmers and sharecroppers, who are clearly malnourished, poorly clothed and certainly unsmiling. Sharecropper Family (1936), taken in Hale Country, Alabama, depicts a family of four—a man, two women and a child. Clearly worn down by the circumstances of barely subsistent living, they remain stoic and resolute nonetheless.


Perhaps the most poignant photograph in the exhibit is Child’s Grave (1936), depicting a simple mound of sandy soil with a set of construction stones at either end and a small dinner plate placed in the center. This nameless child, otherwise forgotten by history, is effectively captured by Evan’s photographic sensitivity and perception. The exhibit, rounded out by various scenes from other parts of Depression-era America, includes several noteworthy photographs of the Brooklyn Bridge published in 1994.

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