I’m reading Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, slowly, and I want to pay some homage to Walker Evans’s photographs. This room was photographed by Evans in Alabama in 1936 during the summer that he and James Agee spent there living with tenant farmers. The idea was to profile one “typical” southern family for Fortune magazine, but it didn’t work out. Agee and Evans did their own thing, and published a book about it several years later.
You get a hint already of an insistent, rebellious eye right here in this image. Evans seems more interested in the horizontal lines of the plank walls that don’t quite meet in the corner than in the objects on display. And they are, weirdly, on display here — as Evans’s photographs are now on museum walls. It’s as if Evans knows, already, that his art and their art is somehow the same. And what do we see? A humble chair with a rush seat. A broom leaning upside down against the wall (why upside down?). A piece of white fabric hung up on a string like a flag of surrender. And two unidentifiable objects mounted on the right-hand wall: a round cup-like thing and a strange pole with a crossed base. What are these things? What do they mean and why is Evans preserving them for posterity?
The careful balancing of objects seems to refer to other conventions of composition from still life paintings. If so, this is an ironic, almost outrageous, commentary on the artistic depiction of things, or material reality. While many still life artists delighted in the sensuous rendering of surfaces–velvets, silks, fur–and the sunlight that played on them, this photograph deprives us (and the things) of all sensory pleasures. These things are purely functional, and while the image has a beauty to it, it would be hard to argue that this kitchen corner is beautiful. Evans is too close to it and this reality is unavoidably grim. He seems to be showing us that this particular corner, where line meets line and wall meets wall, has no exit.