Signs of Boom and Bust

Mark Steinmetz drives the streets of the city’s fast-growing urban sprawl.

Then

Walker Evans, 1936

Atlanta, Georgia

Then

Walker Evans, 1936

Atlanta, Georgia

Roy Stryker, who directed the photographic unit of the Farm Security Administration, deployed Walker Evans and many other photographers across the US to document both the hardships of rural people and the government’s efforts to alleviate those hardships through WPA programs. Stryker was organized; he sent his photographers detailed schedules and shooting scripts, and had no qualms about punching a hole through the negatives they sent him if he deemed their images unworthy. To Stryker’s consternation, Evans cared little for such bureaucratic demands. In response to the stern letters and telegrams Stryker sent while he was on the road, Evans would sometimes not write anything at all, falling out of touch for weeks at a time.

It was on one such trip through the South in 1936 that Evans photographed two nearly identical, unremarkable homes in Atlanta. They were tucked behind a wall covered in advertisements—including one for the Carole Lombard film Love Before Breakfast, which featured a prominent illustration of the actress with a lurid black eye.

“I hate sentimentality in thought and in art,” Evans told the New York Times in 1974. “Yet I’m attracted to things people think of as nostalgic. They’re social history to me. A picture of Main Street in 1930 is not supposed to bring tears to your eyes. It’s supposed to make you feel that that is the way it was.”

Roadside fruit, Ponchatoula, Louisiana, 1936. The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Evans’s 1936 portrait of the two houses was unsentimental, but it also spoke to one of his key obsessions: signs. Before picking up a camera, Evans aspired to be a writer, and his interest in words never ceased. “I think in truth I’d like to be a letterer,” Evans told an interviewer in 1971. “And then, broadly speaking, I’m literary. The sign matters are just a visual symbol of writing.” Signs, he said, had “infinite possibilities” as folk art, as symbolism; they could be surprising and hold double meanings.

Evans’s obsession with signs was such that, in later years, he was not content to simply photograph them. “By the 1970s, he was packing a can of Liquid Wrench and a couple of pairs of pliers in the trunk of his car as a matter of routine,” writes Evans’s biographer Belinda Rathbone. “Many a student was roped, willingly of not, into a late-night sign theft.” If the sign didn’t come off easily, Evans would return as many times as it took to dislodge it. When he mounted a retrospective for Yale, it included boosted ads for Nehi soda, Chesterfield cigarettes, a Coca-Cola sign in the shape of a bottle, and a hand-painted sign that read TOO YOU BELIEVE IN JESUS I DO.

Minstrel poster in Alabama town, 1936. The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. New York Public Library Digital Collections.

In the introduction to Evans’s landmark 1938 book American Photographs (in which this image is included), the writer and philanthropist Lincoln Kirstein notes that Evans’s eye was “clinical,” that he chronicled the “replacement by machine in all its complexities of the work and art once done by individual hands and hearts,” and that this “produce[d] sturdy decorative letterings and grave childlike picturings in an epoch so crass and so corrupt that the only purity of the ordinary individual [was] unconscious.”

By his own admission, Evans’s work was unflinching. But this didn’t mean it lacked empathy. In the same Times interview in which he professed his distaste for nostalgia, the photographer also declared, “There is a deep beauty in things as they are.”

Then

Walker Evans, 1936

Atlanta, Georgia

Now

Mark Steinmetz, 2017

Atlanta, Georgia

Now

Mark Steinmetz, 2017

Atlanta, Georgia

Often referred to as Love Before Breakfast, the photo by Walker Evans from March 1936 is labeled “Frame houses and a billboard” in the Farm Security Administration files. The two houses pictured are nearly identical, with only minor deviations from their architect’s master blueprint. On the fence running along the sidewalk, we see movie posters: Carole Lombard’s black eye from Love Before Breakfast and Anne Shirley on her sofa from Chatterbox echo the oval woodwork framing the porches. The house on the left, with its white lace curtains, feels brighter—someone might be living there—while the house on the right is in decline, with no outward signs of life.

“Frame houses and a billboard” could be read as a commentary on the relative powerlessness of the homes’ inhabitants. The steps that once led up to their homes have been fenced over; how the residents might now reach the street is unclear. The Depression-era scene Evans depicts is bleak: the similarity between the two structures predicts (or warns) of the future of homogeneous housing in the United States, and the smokestack to the right suggests that the inhabitants might work at a nearby factory. Lombard’s black eye adds a menacing tone. I am reminded of Henry David Thoreau’s phrase: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

Evans’s work in the American South in the mid-1930s is a startling achievement within American art and prescient societal critique. With a combination of affection and alarm, he shows us a country enveloped in advertising and undergoing rapid transformation by the automobile. His photographs are dense with meaningful detail that form a kind of literature, and his appreciation and elevation of pop culture precedes Pop art by decades.

In Atlanta today, there are vast stretches of nearly identical homes. The floor plans of houses and apartments are copies of one another. It is easy to find a row of side-by-side porches that runs the entire length of a block. Atlanta is considered one of the fastest-growing large cities in America, in terms of both population and economic growth: over the next few decades, it is projected to become the sixth-largest metro area in the US, with a population of 8.6 million by 2046. Construction is booming throughout the metropolitan area, with numerous large-scale luxury condominiums going up in affluent suburbs such as Sandy Springs and adjacent Gwinnett County, where my photographs were taken.

I wanted to find scenes in the Atlanta area that demonstrated the same domestic conformity depicted in Evans’s photo, and which shared, in some ways, his photo’s formal structure. Whereas the wall in Evans’s photo was certainly not put in place for the benefit of the inhabitants, the walls I photographed of today’s condominiums and subdivisions are expressions of the inhabitants’ power.

The idea behind public advertising has not changed since Evans’s time, but the technology has. Now we have large-scale digital screens along major thoroughfares that cycle through an array of ads. Still, some approaches to advertising remain lo-fi, and, in a throwback to a more vaudevillian era, people are hired to hoist and twirl signs announcing going-out-of-business sales.

Mark Steinmetz has published 14 photographic monographs, including a trilogy of books called South. His work is in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, among others. He lives in Athens, Georgia.

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