Fotofest exhibit traces Walker Evans' legacy
One of the FotoFest 2010 Biennial's official exhibitions, Whatever Was Splendid: New American Photographs, explores parallels between Walker Evans' Depression-era photos and current lens-based U.S. work.
The unavoidable conclusion is that Evans casts a long, wide shadow over much of today's photography, luckily for us. It's not just that the nation has endured the worst recession since the period depicted in Evans' seminal 1938 book, American Photographs. It's that many of today's photographers — whose styles and subjects differ wildly from one another — are up to the same things Evans was, which isn't to say there's anything nostalgic about their work.
Aaron Schuman, founder of the online SeeSaw Magazine and the exhibition's curator, sets up the show by citing Lincoln Kirstein's introductory essay to Evans' monograph.
“(Evans) can be considered a kind of disembodied burrowing eye, a conspirator against time and its hammers,” Kirstein wrote. “Here are the records of the age before imminent collapse. His pictures exist to testify to the symptoms of waste and selfishness that caused the ruin and to salvage whatever was splendid for the future reference of the survivors.”
Photographers' eyes burrow through plenty of ruin today. For his Down These Mean Streets series, Will Steacy walks with a large-format-view camera from various cities' airports to their central business districts — always at night, with an emphasis on “neighborhoods you wouldn't want to be in at night; the parts of town you drive through — not to,” he says.
Steacy captures the signs of blight and neglect — a Philadelphia power plant looming over a crumbling neighborhood, a desolate Detroit housing project, the charred remains of a burned-out car in Los Angeles — with unwavering candor and, often, eerie beauty.
We see more thoroughly burned-out — and bombed and bullet-riddled — remains of cars in Richard Mosse's photographs following American soldiers in Iraq. And his photos and video of American soldiers lounging in the ruins of one of Saddam Hussein's former palaces — “whatever was splendid,” indeed — brilliantly straddle the line between wry humor and tragic grandeur.
Closer to home, Todd Hido burrows through ruin in the interiors of foreclosed suburban homes and, more dreamily, along rural roads, and Tema Stauffer's American Stills echo Evans' poetic portraits of everyday people and places.
More counterintuitive at first glance is Schuman's inclusion of work by Hank Willis Thomas and Jason Lazarus, both of whom work with other people's photographs to explore aspects of popular culture. But Schuman notes that American Photographs is “as much an interrogation of photography as it is of America, if not more so,” and Thomas and Lazarus update that exploration in fascinating ways.
For his Unbranded series, Thomas takes images from magazine advertisements featuring black Americans, often targeting them as consumers, and strips them of their copy and logos. His tactic highlights the stereotypes and assumptions behind the imagery. Because the same image can be disturbing, cheesy, poignant and hilarious all at once, the results are riveting.
Lazarus reversed Thomas' process, adding text instead of removing it while using amateur photos, not commercial ones. He asked various people, “Do you remember who introduced you to the band Nirvana?” and got them to write the answer with an anecdote on the back of a snapshot of that person. He then scanned, enlarged and framed the images and handwrote their responses on the prints' margins.
You might not think such a simple technique would pack much of a punch, but Lazarus' selection is unbelievably sweet — and often devastating. It shows how ordinary people, recording their memories, transform Nirvana's “well, whatever, never mind” mantra into something heartfelt, even splendid.