Wednesday, July 29, 2009

What's in this picture?

By: Erin Crissman, Curator Across the street at Fenimore Art Museum, is a great exhibition of Walker Evans' photography from the 1930s. Walker Evans: Carbon and Silver shows how much additional detail can be shown in these iconic American photographs by re-printing them with today's digital technology. I realised when I was looking at the work during the exhibition's opening a few week's ago that I wasn't looking at the photographs, but concentrating on what was in them. When I look at art, I think about how it documents everyday life from its time period. For The Farmers Museum's historic village buildings, I often look at paintings, drawings and lithographs from the 1840s for clues about how to place furniture, what window treatments to use and what wallpaper should be on the walls. So, at the Walker Evans exhibition, I was looking at how Evans' photographs documented how his subjects lived in the 1930s. Here are a few examples:
These two photographs show the same home's kitchen. The first one is taken from the outside, and the second one from the inside of the house. How can I tell? The same chair is in both photographs, though it is clear that the family either had more than one, or that Evans rearranged the kitchen for his photograph. Also, on the wall in the second photograph is the dasher and lid for a butter churn. In the top photograph, the churn is sitting on the cabinet's enamel counter. I wonder if this family had a cow?
This family's home is incredibly clean. The towel and bowl serve as a washstand to wash hands as they're entering the house. All of the surfaces are look clean and shiny and they have a broom, albeit well-worn, in the corner. Only the kerosene lamp's chimney needs cleaning.
Many of the tenant farmer families Evans photographed in the 1930s were living in much the same way that some families lived in the 1840s. They had no electricity or indoor plumbing and were still churning their own butter. Although I look at these photographs today and see hardship, I also see that this family was making the best out of what they had and taking excellent care of their few possessions.

Top: Farmer's Kitchen, Hale County, Alabama 1936

Bottom: Kitchen Corner, Tenant Farmhouse, Hale County, Alabama 1936

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