Saturday, November 20, 2010

10/11 Academic Decathlon The Great Depression Art Selection #6 - Negro Barber Shop Interior, Atlanta

Negro Barber Shop Interior, Atlanta, Walker Evans, 1936, Gelatin silver print, 22.1 x 18.3 cm, The Art Institute of Chicago

Walker Evans worked through the Farm Security Administration (FSA) and toured the Southern United States for a year with Roy Stryker. We've seen artists so far that used their art to illustrate social injustice (Rivera, Shahn, Biddle), but Evans wanted his work to be "pure record, not propaganda...no POLITICS whatsoever." Stryker had an agenda for Walker to follow, but Evans was deliberate and careful about his shots. He was looking for images that would engage the viewer and make them think, without giving them a political agenda or viewpoint.

Evans broke from the FSA in 1936 to work with James Agee on a commissioned article about white sharecropper families in Alabama. They were on location for several weeks compiling the story and the images that were to accompany it. It was published as the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Walker's imagery was contemplative and objective and his style established a new way of supporting Agee's passionate text through illumination, not illustration. He was fired from the FSA in 1937 but "Evans had already established his fame as a documentary photographer. He had the honor of being the first solo photographer to have an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, and received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1940 that funded his projects." (Thanks DemiDec for your great art resource!!) He eventually became a staff photographer at Fortune magazine and worked there until 1965. He went on to become a professor of photography at Yale University until his death in 1975. He was one of the most important photographers of this time because he had a keen, unimpassioned eye and inspired other photojournalists to shoot without opinion or emotion.

This black and white photograph is full and empty at the same time. The scene is carefully constructed - chairs wait for customers, linen ready to be used, hairdressing tools at the ready. And yet, there are no people in the shot. People are not even reflected in the mirrors. One mirror reflects black emptiness, the other filled with an image of a full shop. The shop is in an old space - chipped paint on the back wall, worn leather chairs - there's a sense that it's been patched together to fit the space. The documentary style of Evans captures all of these details in a high degree because he used a large-format camera.

The barbershop is a communal and intimate space. Men are groomed here on a regular basis. Relationships are formed. Social discourse takes place - the are free to talk about life, work, sports, politics. During the 1930s segregation was in place and black men were required to frequent their own barbershop, not one that white men went to. Evans shows us that environment, without people and without judgment. He presents richly detailed images that are direct and interesting inviting the viewer to interpret what is happening. Check out more of his work from this major retrospective exhibit of his work that was held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

1 comment:

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