- Icons of Depression
One especially striking image included in walker Evans's American Photographs, the photographic book published by the Museum of Modern Art to accompany a retrospective of Evans's work in the fall of 1938, foregrounds the terms of its representation of life in the United States during the Depression. Depicting a found object in a shallow picture plane, “Torn Movie Poster, 1930” (Figure 1) aligns the flat surface of a Hollywood film poster with the flat surface of the photographic image. Evans typically employs a head-on viewing angle and stark but unobtrusive frontal lighting in his photographs, which are, in turn, conceived as unsentimental, unmotivated objects. But “Torn Movie Poster” recasts this notion of his “bare-faced” aesthetic—to borrow a description from the essay that the writer and art critic Lincoln Kirstein contributed to the 1938 book (198). Evans confers mystery upon the original poster image by the framing of this photograph in American Photographs. Extricated from its spatial, geographical, and commercial contexts, the poster's dramatic substance is redirected, transposing the question of what, exactly, so terrifies the woman in the image into a metatextual key. Since each photograph in the book is positioned on the recto page, with the verso side left blank but for the relevant plate number, the woman's startled gaze appears to be directed at the photographic frame itself: the clean expanse of white space that faces and encases the woman. Through an austere, minimalistic poetics of negation, Evans visualizes the limits of his photographed nation.
Evans's image of the Hollywood movie poster is at pains to disclose its own status as an image. It depicts a woman who is already playing a role, whose pose of white, middle-class femininity is as contrived and hyperbolic as her stance of panicked victimhood in the poster. The woman is both scared and scarred, her apparent vulnerability to the damages of the photographic frame—and of the Hollywood typology of the innocent white female victim—ingrained in the corrugated surface of the poster. Resembling both falling tears and lacerations, the rippled [End Page 1]
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[End Page 2] creases on the faces of the couple supplement the large rip in the poster that slashes open the woman's forehead. Since the surface of the poster and the surface of the image are collapsed into each other, these textual traces of dilapidation signify as the wounds of representation itself. The deep gorge in the woman's face produces a “beautiful convulsion” of the real that Rosalind Krauss identifies in surrealist photography in the 1920s and 1930s (“Photography” 35).1 Its chaotic, foliated layering of rips and tears are the signs of signification.
“Torn Movie Poster” offers a means for re-conceptualizing one of the archetypal images of the Great Depression: the portrait in American Photographs with the caption, “Alabama Cotton Tenant Farmer Wife, 1936” (Figure 2). This portrait is a slight variation on the iconic photograph of Allie Mae Burroughs, the wife of a tenant farmer featured under the pseudonym Annie Mae Gudger in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the 1941 documentary book in which Evans collaborated with the writer James Agee (Figure 3). In the sequence of American Photographs, the woman in the movie poster is cordoned off from but still proximate to “Alabama Cotton Tenant Farmer Wife,” which appears immediately after “Torn Movie Poster,” as well as a range of other female figures. In this sense, in symbolizing the wounds of representation, the weathered, marred surface of the movie poster also registers the emplacement of the Hollywood icon as an image in series with other images.
A detailed reading of American Photographs—particularly its serial figurations of the white woman—demonstrates its status as an indispensable precursor to Agee and Evans's 1941 documentary work. Indeed, Agee completed the major revisions of his 400-page contribution to Praise in 1939, as the generally positive reviews of Evans's...