A Room of One’s Own

A photograph of a home speaks volumes about the inhabitant, even when they’re not included in the shot.

Then

Walker Evans, 1935

Hale County, Alabama

Courtesy of Library of Congress

Then

Walker Evans, 1935

Hale County, Alabama

Courtesy of Library of Congress

“I like to suggest people sometimes by their absence,” photographer Walker Evans told an interviewer in 1971. “I like to make you feel that an interior is almost inhabited by somebody.”

Evans was born in St. Louis in 1903 and had a comfortable middle-class upbringing, before rising to fame photographing the Great Depression for the Farm Security Administration, a New Deal agency set up to combat the plight of the rural poor. He joined the FSA photographic unit in 1935 and continued working with the agency (with occasional breaks) until 1937, traversing the United States to document the FSA’s projects and the hardscrabble lives of those hit hardest by economic disaster.

Evans photographed the refugees of devastating floods in Arkansas in 1935 as they were lined up for food with empty plates, sick in bed, and seated on heaps of sacks outside a tent set up in a field. That same year, in Terra Alta, West Virginia, he captured the distrustful sneer of a young woman in a jaunty hat, celebrating Independence Day at an outdoor fete.

Washstand in the dog run and kitchen of Floyd Burroughs' cabin. Hale County, Alabama Courtesy of Library of Congress
Corner of kitchen in Floyd Burroughs' cabin. Hale County, Alabama Courtesy of Library of Congress via. Alamy

Evans also had a special affinity for the inanimate, particularly signs, buildings, and interiors. When the FSA sent him to Birmingham, Alabama, he photographed the steel mills and miners’ shacks. “Certain kinds of subject matter he by now knew were his quarry,” writes Belinda Rathbone in her 1995 book Walker Evans: A Biography. “Rows of matching houses marching to infinity; wooden country churches, their steeples the only element to distinguish them as a place of worship, not of work; storefronts crowded with wares and tin signs.”

Even when Evans’s FSA photographs do not include people, they still feel inhabited: there’s the stark interior of an Alabama church with whitewashed walls, stocked with a modest organ, a simple table, and little else. A 1935 image described simply as showing an “unemployed man’s house” in Morgantown, West Virginia, shows a rocking chair bathed in sunlight that pours in from a nearby window. The aftermath of the 1937 floods is shown in a photo depicting a dilapidated metal bed frame piled with boxes, probably in hopes that the rising waters would not reach them.

Evans ceased working for the FSA in 1937, but throughout his career would continue to train his eye on architecture, signage, and private homes which were particularly meaningful to him. “As a guest, Evans noticed everything,” Rathbone writes. “His eye was ever alert to the detail that gave the room its special character and the personal stamp of its inhabitant ... He would inquire about the fabric of the curtains, admire the curve of a certain chair, or covet an antique silver box of the first edition of a book he might have read 20 years before.”

Part of the bedroom of Floyd Burroughs' cabin. Hale County, Alabama Courtesy of Library of Congress

Nearly 30 years later, in 1966, Evans found himself at a crossroads in his life: he had recently left a longstanding position as a staff photographer for Fortune magazine and was starting a new job as a professor of photography at Yale. He was also about to publish a new book of photos, which would be publicized with his first New York gallery show since 1932. Message From the Interior, published by Eakins Press in New York, was a large, slim book bound in gray linen, containing 12 interior images shot by Evans between 1931 and 1962.

Among the images were some made during his time with the FSA, including the spartan Alabama church. But he also included photographs of a careworn Ringling Bros. circus wagon, circa 1941; a child’s bedroom in Massachusetts, brimming with stuffed animals, toys, and records, from 1951; and an ornate parlor in a New Jersey home, from 1958. In only two photographs do people appear, and even then they are only guest stars, tucked in the corners of images mostly taken up by the rooms they sit in.

In an afterword to the book, John Szarkowski, then-director of photography for the Museum of Modern Art, wrote, “The photographs of Walker Evans pretend to reproduce—without interpretation, without feeling, almost without thought—the very bones and clay of the actual world.”

Then

Walker Evans, 1935

Hale County, Alabama

Courtesy of Library of Congress

Now

Alec Soth, 2018

Minneapolis, Minnesota

Now

Alec Soth, 2018

Minneapolis, Minnesota

This past July, I photographed a series of domestic interiors along Franklin Avenue in Minneapolis. This four-and-a-half-mile stretch highlights a particularly eclectic mix of inhabitants: recent college grads, Native American residents, East African immigrants, and multimillionaires.

Like the book from which this work takes inspiration—Message from the Interior, by Walker Evans—the only message is the picture itself. Or as William Carlos Williams so eloquently put it, “no ideas but in things.”

2300 East Franklin Avenue
305 West Franklin Avenue
1720 West Franklin Avenue
Franklin-Hiawatha encampment
1100 West Franklin Avenue
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