Portraits of Hard Living in America
Photographer Walker Evans was born in St. Louis in 1903. His childhood was a comfortable one secured by his father’s earnings as an advertising executive; he marveled at the railroads that crisscrossed the Midwestern landscape and spent summers in resort hotels. Smart, but never an exceptional student, Evans bounced around East Coast boarding schools, finally graduating from Phillips Academy in Andover in 1922. By then, Evans had decided he would be a writer and went to Williams College to study literature but grew bored and dropped out after a year; it was only after a failed stint in Paris in the 1920s that he abandoned his literary dreams and picked up a camera, a path that would lead him to the Works Progress Administration, and eventually artistic stardom.
In New York City in 1927, Evans took night jobs so that he could make pictures during the day, deliberately shooting against what he saw as the clichéd style of modern photographers who produced beautiful but overly commercial images. He was initially drawn to stark urban architecture, but would garner fame for capturing unsentimental images of average Americans during the Great Depression.
Between 1935 and 1937, Evans worked for the Farm Security Administration (FSA). Formed by the U.S. government to combat rural poverty, the FSA assembled a team of photographers that also included Dorothea Lange to document its attempts to improve the conditions of poor farm workers by granting farm loans, forming cooperative farms, and building refugee camps for those fleeing the Dust Bowl, among other programs. The FSA collection now contains about 175,000 black-and-white negatives. During his years with the FSA, Evans roamed the country’s rural outposts, photographing communities struck by desperate financial hardship; the people, their roadside businesses, homes, and churches.
It was during a trip through Georgia in 1936 where he also photographed run-down row houses and black barber shops that Evans took a picture of the Cherokee Parts Store in Atlanta (shown above). The parts store was located just around the corner from Evans’ hotel and it is likely that, among other features, the prominent sign was a strong pull to the photographer, who was drawn to advertising and signage. In the 1998 book Walker Evans: Signs, published by the J. Paul Getty Museum, the writer Andrei Codrescu muses over this image:
“At a garage in Atlanta, Georgia, the car parked beneath the “Cherokee Parts” sign is surrounded by the O’s of hanging tires. The tires look as if they would like to form a word, but they can only say O O O O, like someone struck by awe.”
In 1936, Evans would take a leave from the FSA to travel to Alabama with writer James Agee and chronicle the lives of sharecroppers for Fortune. The magazine never published the story, but Evans’ images would be published alongside Agee’s words in a 1941 book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. By then, Evans was already famous; in 1938 he was the first photographer to receive a solo show at The Museum of Modern Art, and his book American Photographs, which accompanied the show, set a new standard for photographic books. Published with the disclaimer “The reproductions presented in this book are intended to be looked at in their given sequence,” American Photographs emphasized the narrative progression of the images over simply collecting a few good photos in one place. Evans would go on to accept a staff job at Fortune magazine and to teach at Yale.
In an interview from 1971, four years before his death, Evans reflected on a lifetime of work. “My photography was a semi-conscious reaction against right-thinking and optimism; it was an attack on the establishment,” he explained. “I could just hear my father saying, ‘Why do you want to look at those scenes, they’re depressing. Why don’t you look at the nice things in life?’ Nothing original about that though.”
We are all shaped by where we come from—which, for me, is Fulton, New York, a broken little upstate town that formed around the now-toxic Oswego River, at its intersection with Interstate 481. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. It wasn’t simply because I looked and acted different from other kids, but that my difference incited hostility. I might get tripped in the hall at school or be targeted by a spit wad in the cafeteria. Menacing groups of kids would corner me at my locker and sing a few bars of the Stevie Nicks song, “Gypsy.”
My family weren’t actually Gypsies—at least, not in an ethnographic sense. But in this homogenous town, where everybody was somebody’s cousin, my mother’s choices and beliefs (the pot plants growing in the front window, her penchant to shop in the local supermarket naked underneath a ratty thrift store coat) diverged from the norm enough to mark us as outsiders, and therefore as enemies. Prophetically, I did become something of a gypsy, living out of a van for much of these last fifteen years and photographing the western American scene. My road trips embraced the sweet pleasure of escape. Thirty years later, I went back to see what I was running from.
The town now, is even more of what it was when I left—more despairing, more despondent. Half the houses are vacant, either in foreclosure or beyond the concern of banks. The industries that once sustained the town (Miller Brewing Company, Sealright, of waxy milk carton fame, and Nestlé, to name a few) have left, and a large portion of its nearly all-white population lives close to or below the poverty line. The carcass of the giant Nestlé plant, once the town’s biggest employer, lies in ruins at the southern entrance to the city. Someone started to tear it down but never bothered to finish. A nuclear power plant 30 miles to the north offers the best jobs around, second to Auburn State Correctional Facilities 30 miles to the south. The only other thriving businesses are the churches, of multiple denominations. People sit on their porches, arrested in the depression of bodies no longer of use. I’m not sure what’s wrong with America, but whatever it is, it’s here.
The past was no more hospitable. I found an old newspaper clipping about a six-year-old who was stripped naked and beaten by another child in the woods between a Section 8 housing complex and the elementary school. A teacher who saw him limping toward school mistook the blood for a red snowsuit. The Oswego Valley News reported the incident with a cheery tone because President Ronald Reagan’s assistant had called the family to offer condolences, as happy an ending as anybody could have hoped for. I would have been eleven, in a middle school classroom eight blocks away, but somehow the incident didn’t even register. Or rather, malevolence was so palpable in the town that it masked its own symptoms.
I approached Fulton with Walker Evans’s photographs in mind, the beauty of his taxonomical depictions, his collection of surfaces made from an austere frontal view. There is one picture particularly: a garage is squarely framed, providing structure for a haphazard assembly of objects and figures. It’s titled Cherokee Parts Store, made in 1936 in Atlanta, Georgia as part of the Farm Security Administration under the direction of Roy Stryker. Stryker assigned his photographers shooting scripts, which listed such innocuous American scenes as: good house, good barn, kid eating hot dog. One such prompt read local businesses, trades, auto repair, but in Cherokee Parts Store we are left to wonder about the figures in the frame—why two glamorous women would be shopping for a used car. Evans’ invention is to put personal narrative on equal footing with the pragmatic vernacular facts; the women are no more important than the chrome hubcaps or the dusty tires. Five faces hover across the picture in rhythm with tires fixed to the garage’s façade. Evans’ own face appears in the middle, reflected in a car’s rear windshield.
Evans described his work as “documentary style” as a way to acknowledge that, since all pictures skew toward the bias of their maker, the notion of objectivity could only ever be a matter of style. I attempted to take Evans’ premise to its furthest conclusion by photographing the psychically charged terrain of my childhood nightmares. I let the distortions of my subjectivity lead me, but shot with an objective end, as if gathering evidence for a courtroom. In other words, I simultaneously engaged the interiority of my psyche and the exteriority of the town. The view camera slices the outside world onto the gridded plane of ground glass—rational, but wholly interior. I used it to steady myself and navigate my way towards photographic cohesion, one picture at a time.
My pictures of Fulton fixate on details that resonate emotionally with me. Not only the ghosts that sent me running from the town in the first place, but also those shards of resilience and resistance that enabled me to imagine someplace to run towards, and ultimately made my return both possible and, from an artistic standpoint, inevitable.
Justine Kurland was born in 1969 in Warsaw, New York. She received her B.F.A from School of Visual Arts, NY in 1996, and her M.F.A. from Yale University in 1998.
Her work is in the public collections of institutions including the Whitney Museum, the Guggenheim Museum, and the International Center of Photography, all in New York; the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C.; and the Museum of Fine Arts in Montreal. In 2013, she was awarded The New York Foundation of the Arts' Artists' Fellowship for Photography. She is represented by Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York.