Walker Evans (1903-1975), a documentary photographer best known for his depictions of southern sharecroppers during the Great Depression, store signs and street signs in cities and towns, and the whole of American vernacular, spent a morning in the summer of 1938 taking photographs, for reasons not entirely clear, of a street block on E. 61st Street in New York. By the time he took this stroll and shot these pictures, now housed in the FSA-OWI photo collection of the Library of Congress, Evans had already left the Resettlement Administration and the Farm Security Administration, under whose employ he had famously photographed the plight of southern farm workers.
Evans was back living in New York, preparing for an exhibit of his photographs and working, along with James Agee, on the upcoming Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941). Apparently, he was also in need of income that summer of '38, and letters indicate that Evans worked out something with his former government boss, Roy Stryker, for a short assignment for the Farm Security Administration. According to the text accompanying Evans' photographs on the Library of Congress website, "These photographs taken in New York City probably represent the outcome of the matter, although nothing in the agency's files explains the selection of the subject, if Evans was paid, or whether he and Stryker were satisfied with the pictures."
Hmmm. At least we have the pictures. These black and white photographs of tenement buildings, children sitting on stoops, the street life and store signs along E. 61st Street between 1st and 2nd Avenue constitute just one visual fragment of the era, the Great Depression, as well as the specifics of place - New York rental apartments of three of four bedrooms, shared bath facilities and the vibrant street life of a growing neighborhood. As LOC indicates, the block of this southern Yorkville neighborhood in the 1930s was largely composed of people of Italian heritage, with Irish and Poles living nearby.
We're not sure exactly what lured Evans to this block on E. 61st that Tuesday morning of August 23, 1938. We know he shot four rolls of film, and as the library presents them in sequence, there's evidence he must have gone up and down the block a few times. The summer light is strong and clear. He could have been hurrying to finish the Stryker assignment, thinking this block would tell the story, but I don't personally buy into the assertion that he found the block convenient because of its proximity to his E. 92nd Street apartment. It's not that close. The block to the west was, and still is, more conventionally beautiful, part of what is now the Treadwell Farm Historic District, but that block would be too pretty for a Stryker assignment. As Evans gazed down the street that morning, the block between 1st and 2nd Avenues must have come alive for him in some way.
I didn't find any answers to these questions when I revisited the block, although I immersed myself as fully as possible in understanding the street of my own day, as Evans did, through the eye of my camera. During my stroll up and down the street, I found several of the buildings Evans photographed still intact, providing points of reference for my images. Yet, much had changed over seventy years - no extended families conversing on the stoop or laundry hanging to dry outside of windows and fire escapes. A dry cleaners now occupies 326 E. 61st, and outdoor street sports have given way to a sports club. Air conditioning units sit in windows once routinely opened. Today, flowering trees soften the hard facades of the older 19th century buildings and the more modern ones that have filled in as replacements. The street, like others across the American landscape, now mostly functions as the egress for human struggles carried on in private spaces indoors, replacing the warm theater and open windows of the public street drama.
Images: Walker Evans photographs in the collection of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection, top to bottom:
New York, New York. 61st Street between 1st and 3rd Avenues. Children playing in the street. LC-USF3301-006714-M1 DLC (b&w film dup. neg.)
New York, New York. 61st Street between 1st and 3rd Avenues. A sign offering apartments for rent. LC-USF3301-006718-M3 DLC (b&w film dup. neg.)
New York, New York. 61st Street between 1st and 3rd Avenues. House fronts. LC-USF3301-006715-M5 DLC (b&w film dup. neg.)
Images in slideshow by Walking Off the Big Apple from the morning of April 18, 2009. A follow-up post of the longer stroll is posted here.
For more on Walker Evans, see the exhibit of his enormous postcard collection, Walker Evans and the Picture Postcard, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through May 25, 2009. In 1994 the Estate of Walker Evans gave its holdings to the Met. Walker Evans images under the auspices of the RA and the FSA are in the public domain.
While we're on the subject, please visit the website of my graduate school mentor, Bill Stott, the author of the landmark Documentary Expression and Thirties America, who taught me how to think and write like this.