Reflecting the American Dream:
Walker Evans on 1930s Advertising
Evans photography has colored all of our memories
so that we can no longer separate our fact from his fiction, or vice versa.
-- A.D. Coleman, 1971
Considered one of the twentieth century's greatest artists, Walker Evans
captured American culture, within its specific historical context, and brought
an ethical sophistication to the nature of documentary photography. This
quintessential American photographer shunned both artistic pretension and
commercial acceptance, favoring instead, clear, direct, simple, and
straightforward representations of industrial society which often illuminated
the ironic potential of the American Dream. Preferring the sharp focus and
exceptional detail of large format cameras, Evans used an 8x10 view camera, set
at a small aperture, for much of his seminal work in the 1930s, shooting his
subjects straight on, without sentimentality or commentary; it was a camera
technique that matched the stark realism of his own way of seeing. "Sublimely
simple, resonant, and profound" (Purvis, 1993, 52), the images of the most
influential of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographers ultimately
changed the way generations of people perceived the United States. Evans was
unwilling to create images to support the propaganda of a particular political
or governmental perspective; distancing himself from his subject mater, he opted
for a reflective, anonymous, almost disinterested stance, aimed at providing a
historical record of what "any present time will look like as the past (Evans,
1982, 151). To this day, the purity and transparency of Evans seemingly
effortlessness pictures, created without pretense or artifice, have helped to
ensure their place as a primary source book for depression-era American history.
Scholars suggest that while Evans' individual photographs offer timeless
depictions of American society, when the images are arranged sequentially, that
the juxtapositioning of these pictures creates a variety of new relationships
and meanings. In fact, the continued republication of much of Evans 1930s work,
including the reissuing of two of his collections of photographs, American
Photographs and Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, has introduced new generations to
his photography and has prompted considerable scholarly attention. The fiftieth
anniversary edition of American Photographs, published in 1988, continues the
1962, second edition tradition of dedicating the book to future generations, not
only as a formative example of photographic art but also as historical evidence.
Assessing the unity and coherence of American Photographs as a "remarkable
achievement" (Trachtenberg, 1989, 235), Alan Trachtenberg suggests that Evans
struggles to define an alternative role for photography against prevailing
artistic norms of the 1930s. J.A. Ward situates Evans' significant artifacts,
characters, and experiences within the historical specificities of the southern
region of the United States (Ward, 1985), while Lew Andrews reinforces the
importance of reading American Photographs as a sequence of images rather than
as a pictorial collection (Andrews, 1994). Although Evans' photographs for Let
Us Now Praise Famous Men, written by James Agee, were taken in Hale County,
Alabama, in 1936, Ken Takata emphasizes their continued ability, some fifty
years later, to speak to audiences regarding fundamental issues in society
(Takata, 1989). More recently, Paula Rabinowitz assesses the images and
depression-era reportage of the text to interrogate sexual, class, and racial
positions in bourgeois society (Rabinowitz, 1992), and Miles Orvell suggests
that the documentary model Evans and Agee created still provides insights for
future investigations of American culture (Orvell, 1993).
While assessments of individual book projects certainly reinforce Evans'
position as a creative genius, this essay, however focuses on the advertising
images Evans creates during the depression, a period generally considered his
"most creative" (Trachtenberg, 1989, 245), as an information specialist for the
Division of Information for the Resettlement Administration, later known as the
FSA. Unlike other FSA photographers, who are willing to incorporate hope,
heroism, and other humanistic concerns, at the request of the United States
government, Evans keeps his emotional distance from his subject matter, and
produces plain, uncompromising representations of depression-era culture. In a
spring 1935 handwritten draft memorandum to the FSA, Evans insists that he must
never be asked to create propaganda to support any governmental policy and
explains that the value of his photographs, "lies in the record itself which in
the long run will prove an intelligent and farsighted thing to have done. NO
POLITICS whatever" (Evans 1982, 112).
In photographing a myriad of printed and hand-made signs, billboards, and
posters, Evans suggests the ironic presence of advertising in twentieth century
industrial society, particularly in his comparison of the actual living
conditions with "public symbols of material power" (Ward 1985, 119). His
emphasis on signs remains a constant theme throughout all of his photography,
and in later years, Walker extends his interest to the actual collecting of
logos, signs, billboards, and other advertising ephemera. While these
advertising images certainly offer a critique of industrial capitalism, this
essay suggests that they may also illustrate a "structure of feeling," a way of
experiencing and understanding American culture in the 1930s, particularly as it
relates to the development of advertising in contemporary society.
Raymond Williams conceives of structure of feeling as an attempt to distinguish
the practical, evolving, lived experiences, within the hegemonic process, from
the more formal fixed concept of ideology. In one sense, it represents the
culture of a period, the actual "living result" of a particular class or
society, which corresponds to the dominant social character; yet it also
illustrates expressions of interactions between other non-dominant groups
(Williams, 1961, 63). A structure of feeling incorporates "meanings and values
as they are actively lived and felt," particularly as they interact with and
react against selected formal beliefs (Williams, 1977/1988, 132). It describes
the tension between the lived and the articulated, and methodologically it
provides a cultural hypothesis that attempts to understand particular material
elements of a specific generation, at a distinct historical time, within a
complex hegemonic process. Williams' suggests that when a culture's structure of
feeling can no longer be addressed by its members, it can be approximated from a
consideration of the society's "documentary culture," which includes all types
of recorded culture such as photographs, novels, poems, films, buildings, and
fashions (Williams, 1961, 49).
The artists' imagination is thought to transform specific ideologies and
produce a specific response to a particular social order and an understanding
which can be more "real" than ordinarily observable. For Williams, this sense of
imagination allows a synthesis between the personal and the social that creates
and judges a whole way of life in terms of individual qualities:
"it is a formation, an active formation, that you feel your way into, feel
informing you, so that in general and in detail it is not very like the usual
idea of imagination ... but seems more like a kind of recognition, a connection
with something fully knowable but not yet known" (Williams, 1983, 264-5). Evans'
understanding of the actual role he plays in the creation of his own photography
is similar to Williams' understanding of the artistic imagination. Finding his
choice of subject matter less a conscious preference than a magical
"irresistible tug from inside," Evans explains that, "It's as though there's a
wonderful secret in a certain place and I can capture it. Only I, at this
moment, can capture it, and only this moment and only me" (Evans quoted in
Rathbone, 1995, 116).
It is not surprising that advertising images comprise an important component of
Evans' photography. The son of an advertising executive, Evans learns the
persuasive pull of advertising from his father who worked at Lord and Thomas as
a copywriter for Albert Lasker, the dominant advertising personality during the
beginning of the twentieth century and one of the first individuals to use mass
psychology in advertising. In her biography of Evans, Belinda Rathbone notes
that his home life was unhappy; his parents were estranged and his father was
having an affair with their next-door neighbor and eventually moved in with her
after she obtained a divorce. In an attempt to keep both families happy, Evans'
father continually presented a false front to the world and, "As far as Walker
could see, the American dream of a happy family life, one of the targets at
which his father had learned to aim his subliminal advertising persuasions, was
neither pure nor true" (Rathbone, 1995, 20). Perhaps Flaubert's description of
advertising people as "noisy competitors with souls as flat as billboards"
(Flaubert quoted in Rathbone, 1995, 30), may also have encouraged Evans'
critique of the hand-maiden of material culture.
While the history of the dissemination of persuasive information may be traced
back thousands of years, scholars generally agree that the formation of modern
advertising emerges from specific characteristics and needs of corporate
industrial capitalism, including a system of market control, an advanced
distribution organization, and the development of consumer credit. From 1880 to
1930, such changes in industrial capitalism help to engineer the advancement of
an organized system of persuasion and commercial information. By the end of the
first World War, straightforward business announcements and crudely designed
advertisements begin to give way to psychologically sophisticated campaigns,
created by advertising specialists, that promote specific products and help to
foster consumerism. Not surprisingly, by 1930s, advertising has become
"capitalism's way of saying 'I love you' to itself" (Schudson, 1986, 232).
In modern advertising, it is never enough to sell a product; the acquisition of
merchandise becomes associated with social and personal values and meanings. In
one sense, advertising acts "as an agency of social control" (Carey, 1989, 23),
encouraging individuals to follow prescribed social "norms" and consume products
appropriate to the current economic and social conditions. Yet, it also
"magically" convinces people that social needs and desires, such as love and
companionship, are attainable through the acquisition of commodities, so that,
for instance, by brushing with a particular toothpaste, an individual will
ultimately be rewarded with his or her true love. As Williams explains: "If the
consumption of individual goods leaves the whole area of human need unsatisfied,
the attempt is made, by magic, to associate this consumption with human desires
to which it has no real reference. You do not only buy an object: you buy social
respect, discrimination, health, beauty, success, power to control your
environment" (Williams, 1980, 188-189).
Stuart Ewen finds that modern advertising creates the "fancied need" which
requires consumers to buy, not to quench their own needs, but in order to
satisfy the "real needs of the capitalist machinery" (Ewen, 1976, 31). During
the 1930s, advertisements begin to focus on "social insecurity" to sell products
as well as consumerism; Ewen suggests that advertisements encourage
self-conscious anxieties among people who are made to feel emotionally uneasy
and uncomfortable (Ewen, 1976, 38).
An emphasis on "social insecurity" is the hard-sell tactic favored by
advertisers during the depression as advertising revenues begin to fall from a
1929 $3.4 billion high to a low of $1.3 billion in 1933 (Fox, 1997, 118-119). In
an effort to keep costs down, advertisers limit the use of illustrations and
color, and appeal to consumers' personal insecurities throughout the use of
sensationalized and threatening slice-of-life stories, gross exaggerations,
extensive body copy, loud headlines, contests, prizes, and two-for-one
promotions. Advertising appeals often focus on consumers' fear, guilt, and
shame, violating prevailing standards of decency in their preoccupation with
body odors, personal flaws, and job insecurity. During the 1930s, advertisers
capitalize on wide-spread unemployment, favoring scare campaigns in their
attempts to connect the use of their brand of razor blades, toothpaste,
mouthwash, and stocking garters to job security. Advertisers also focus on
parental guilt to sell such items as breakfast cereal, pencils, toilet tissue,
and light bulbs. In 1934, advertising executive Bruce Barton suggests that,
"ideals have been abandoned, standards have been sunk," and he warns that the
proliferation of "silly advertisements, dishonest advertisements, disgusting
advertisements" now discredit the business and put its practitioners on the
defensive (Barton quoted in Fox 1997, 120.)
Convinced that the hard-sell approach helps encourage consumers to purchase
products during troubled economic times, advertisers increasingly seek new
outlets for their messages. Farm Security Administration photographs, including
many taken by Walker Evans, document the intrusion of billboards and advertising
signs on the social landscape of 1930s America. For example, local advertising
agents offer, at no cost, to paint three sides of a barn any color requested by
the farmer, if the agent can advertise his/her product on the side of the barn
that faces the road. At the height of the depression, barns glorifying "Clabber
Girl," the "Gold Dust Twins," and "Bull Durham" are found in every state
(Goodrum & Dalrymple, 1990, 42).
Evans' photographic documentation of depression-era society often addresses the
appropriation of consumer culture and suggests the ironies of depicting "a
society of pleasure that is inseparable from the consumer society which gave it
birth" (Mora & Hill, 1993, 34). Rejecting the commercialism, "slick technique,"
and saccharine romanticism of most American photographers, Evans offers the work
of Eugene Atget, specifically his "lyrical understanding of the street, trained
observation of it, special feeling for patina, eye for revealing detail" (Evans,
1980, 185), as an example of what photography should encompass. Overall, the key
to Evans' photographic style is his ability to disappear into his work, to view
American culture without appearing to comment on it. Preferring the term
"documentary style" to "documentary photographer," he explains that "documentary
is police photography of a scene and murder... That's a real document. You see
art is really useless, and a document has use. And therefore art is never a
document, but it can adopt that style. I do it" (Evans 1982, 216).
His anti-romantic way of situating American culture, within its specific
historical moment, as well as his emphasis on visual and literary satire and
illusion, resonates with the philosophies of two of his early influences,
Baudelaire and Flaubert. From Baudelaire, Evans gains an understanding of the
role of photography as a memory aid for the historical record -- as a
"record-keeper of whomsoever needs absolute material accuracy for professional
reasons" (Baudelaire 1980, 88). Always cognizant of Flaubert's strict adherence
to realism, and his insistence on the objective treatment of his subjects, Evans
maintains that he incorporates, "almost unconsciously," an understanding of the
"non-appearance of the author. The non-subjectivity that is literally applicable
to the way I want to use the camera and do" (Evans, 1982, 70). Alan Trachtenberg
suggests that Flaubert also helps Evans to break from prevailing traditions and
expectations, to see himself as an artistic rebel who would do for photography
what Flaubert did for the novel: "With his eye for signifying detail, for the
accidental revelations in juxtaposed objects, including written signs, and with
his wit in laying one picture next to another, Evans set out to prove that
apparently documentary photographs could be as complex as a fine piece of
writing, as difficult and rewarding in their demands" (Trachtenberg, 1989, 240).
Trachtenberg emphasizes the literariness of Evans' photography and suggests
that he evaluates his images based on the literary techniques of "eloquence,
wit, grace, and economy," as well as "structure and coherence, paradox and play
and oxymoron" (Trachtenberg, 1989, 241). For Evans, photography does not mimic
literature, it is, in and of itself, a language, the "most literary of the
graphic arts" (Evans quoted in Ware, 1993, 147).
Aware of the contradictions inherent in technological society, much of Evans'
work emphasizes the exploitation of individuals by machines as well as the
influence of mass produced goods and services on the quality of life for members
of the working class. There is pessimism as well as humor in his depictions of
technological progress, particularly when seen in the context of the actual
living and working conditions of millions of Americans during this era. For
example, in his photographs of the homes of miners in West Virginia, Evans
contrasts the poverty and lack of material comfort with the opulence of
advertising posters with which they decorate their living environments. While
commercial images of Santa Claus and Coca Cola logos provide the predominant
decorating touches, and comment upon the residents' inability to purchase the
consumer goods which tempt them in these advertisements, they also represent the
creative energy of these individuals. Echoing Williams dictum that: "Advertising
is the official art of modern capitalist society. We put it up in our streets
and fill our news media with it" (Williams 1980, 184), Evans' photography offers
pointed examples, not only of how advertising blankets American culture, but
also of how people appropriate specific offerings of advertising with
imagination and creativity.
Lincoln Kirstein insists that Evans' work shows the eminent decay of industrial
capitalist society, testifying to "the symptoms of waste and selfishness that
caused the ruin" (Kirstein, 1988, 196); however, it is important to note that
Evans' photography also includes an attempt to salvage, for future observers, a
record of the beauty still found in society. Fascinated with classical
architecture, Evans photographs decorative architectural details of Victorian
houses in New England, as well as simple wooden homes, general stores, and gas
stations found in small southern towns. While he exposes the poverty, dirt, and
ruin inherent in many of these buildings, he also offers a glimpse of the
functional beauty of commonplace objects. For instance, a 1936 picture of the
kitchen wall of a sharecropper's home in Hale County, Alabama, shows a meager
array of eating utensils, yet the composition of the image also showcases the
ornamental aspect of the forks and spoons, and may be seen to pay homage to
these workers "cultural energy and spirit" (Brierly, 1992, 43).
However, people do not play a central role in much of Evans' photography, which
prompts some critics to suggest that not only does he breathe life into
inanimate objects, but that he seems to care more about those objects than the
people who produce and own them. But eventually, as Max Kozloff explains, "the
rightness of this tone gradually sinks in on the viewer, who grasps that Evans
aims to describe a broader spectacle, the diffusions of a culture in its
material expression" (Kozloff, 1989, 116). The dominance of people, by inanimate
cultural artifacts, permeates Evans' photography, and not only suggests the
myriad of ways in which human beings disappear from the artificial images but
also suggests how individuals have "abandoned their authority to the fabricated
human beings of advertisement posters" (Ward, 1985, 128).
Evans' 1936 photograph of a roadside stand near Birmingham, Alabama offers a
lighthearted critique of the domination of advertising in depression-era society
(see figure 1). Two young salesmen are dwarfed by the myriad of all-encompassing
signs plastered over the country store, promoting a variety of goods and
services. While the signs advertise house moving and an assortment of types of
fish for sale, the store displays fruit. The signs which promise reliability,
honest weights, and square dealings dominate the scene and their promises seem
to be reinforced by the boys holding melons. Yet, the young merchants seem to
provide a secondary, almost subservient role to the larger inanimate advertising
structure. The large painted fish at the top of the building has far more
character development than either of the two boys and may be seen to represent a
humorous commentary on the intrusion of advertising in American life. However,
Evans notes that the comedy in his work may not be uniformly apparent and he
suggests that some of his attempts to infuse humor into his photographs are
missed because of the individual experiences and attitudes that some readers
bring to his images (Evans, 1982, 33).
Favoring anonymous expression over the truth of portraits, Evans admits that he
has no interest in photographing people as individuals, and says that human
beings "interest me as elements in the total image, as long as they are
anonymous" (Evans quoted in Mora & Hill, 1993, 260). Evans' 1936 photograph of a
Birmingham photography shop, depicting two hundred twenty-five machine-made,
small passport photos, carefully arranged in squares of fifteen, with the word
STUDIO emblazoned across them, is but one example of how his work critiques
stereotypical notions of portrait photography. The passport photos, identical in
size and framing, are devoid of artistic sensibilities or individual
subjectivity, and in one sense may be seen as "emblems of mechanical
stylelessness" (Trachtenberg, 1984, 6). For Evans, the anonymous subject,
created by an anonymous photographer, placed in the context of the cluttered
landscape of industrial capitalism, are thought to reveal the naked truth about
American society. Ultimately, an emphasis on cultural artifacts, produced by
contemporary society, may show how the American Dream now translates into giving
individuals only the choice and arrangement of inanimate, manufactured goods.
Evans photographs the ironic presence of advertising movie posters, billboards,
and signs as their insinuate their way into the landscape of American culture.
Considering them essential manifestations of the logic of capitalist society, he
suggests that even a frayed movie poster contains evidence of a specific
historical place and time. For instance, Evans' photograph of a deteriorating
minstrel showbill advertising J.C. Lincoln's Sunny South Minstrels, is at first
glance, a cartoon-like characterization of African Americans, who are shown
hanging out of the windows of a dilapidated house, running after chickens, and
pouring water on musicians. Yet, not only does this image illustrate the
ludicrous racial stereotyping pervasive in depression-era society, as well as
the degradation of African Americans, but the decay of the poster itself also
may be seen to create a horrific realization of the agony and violence inherent
in American culture. The weather-worn poster depicts half-obliterated faces and
disembodied hands that represent the frightening potential of annihilation and
present a visceral documentation of specific material conditions. The photograph
not only represents the history of the poster, what it originally was meant to
illustrate, but it also indicates the current status of the deteriorating
billboard which focuses on the pain and violence inherent in the image. The
minstrel showbill photograph illustrates that while advertising signs from the
1930s are both familiar and ordinary records of society, when they are ripped
out of their usual context, they may also confer essential clues about current
issues in society.
A depression-era structure of feeling emerges from a photograph taken by Evans
in 1936, depicting two symmetrically matching wooden frame houses, on a street
in Atlanta, Georgia, each with oval-framed second story porches (see figure 2).
The dreary, faceless, houses form a backdrop for the movie billboards which
offer visions of celluloid romance and pleasure. One of the posters advertises
Carole Lombard's new film, "Love Before Breakfast," and shows her gazing at her
fans seductively, with a obvious blackened eye. This biting commentary by Evans,
on the contradictions between the American Dream and the actual living
conditions of the occupants of these two slightly sinister-looking houses,
suggests what happens in an impersonal mass society, when people are often
misrepresented on posters like glamorous film stars.
Interestingly, when confronting this image, viewers may be uncomfortably
reminded that beautiful people are often "promoted by the ugliest and crudest of
advertising displays" (Ward, 1985, 131). While Lombard certainly may be seen to
represent luxury and material excess, the irony of this picture is heightened by
her prominent black eye, which mirrors the houses' balconies and may symbolize
the actual violence women often endure in oppressive relations. The photograph
also includes an advertisement for Anne Shirley in "Chatterbox," reminding
viewers, once again, of demeaning 1930s stereotypes of women promoted throughout
the mass media. Read together, the two posters may also suggest that while women
who talk too much end up with a blackened eye, this violence is necessary to put
them in their place so that they are "prepared" to participate in an early
Crossroads store in Sprott, Alabama provides another example of the
pervasiveness of advertising in 1930s American society (see figure 3). This
image is one of many created by Evans that depicts rural post offices, stores,
and gas stations. In each case, the buildings are simple wooden constructions,
decorated with commercial advertisements -- most often for Coca-Cola. As places
of communication, they illustrate how modern industrial society intersects with
its agrarian roots. The barely distinguishable people, shown standing on the
porch of the post office, appear as no more than decorative wallpaper. The
emphasis is clearly on the giant Coca-Cola sign which obscures the
identification of the building as a post office and serves as an ironic reminder
of the role that the soft-drink plays in 1930s southern culture. Once again, the
image reinforces the importance that advertising plays in depression-era
culture, suggesting to readers the continued power of advertising, and also
providing "a vision of the commonplace revealing its artlessness as art"
(Hulick, 1993, 139).
Throughout Evans' work, representations of hand-crafted folk culture clash with
images of machine-produced, standardized objects created by the culture industry
-- Evans own description of advertising, as a "bastard trade" (Evans 1982, 74),
may be seen to reinforce this conflict. Much of his photography emphasizes the
creative visions inherent in the hand-made signs of independent business people,
offering their artistic lettering and primitive imagery as expressions of their
entrepreneurial drive and ingenuity. These signs are representations of a more
innocent time, and are contrasted with an array of mass-produced advertising
images which promote the consumption of consumer goods.
The photograph of Lincoln Market, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, created by
Evans in 1935, provides an example of the conflict between individual creativity
and industrialization (see figure 4). A hand-lettered sign on the side of a
general store advertises meats and groceries as well as delivery services
available. While this unsophisticated advertising display figures prominently in
the photograph, so does the Coca Cola sign which frames the front door of the
establishment and occupies an ownership role in this scene. No mater how much
space is given to the independent business venture, it is clear that corporate
capitalism will prevail.
The general store itself represents a place of social communication, a symbolic
public sphere where people may gather to discuss issues of importance to the
community. Yet, the concerns of depression-era society may be illustrated in the
prevalence of advertising signs and posters. In this photograph, both the
representations of a slickly-produced advertising logo as well as the hand-made
market sign may be seen as essential components of public communication in 1930s
America. That the signs occupy the entire image, and corresponding public space,
may offer a clue as to what Evans considers the current state of communication.
Echoing other depression-era critics, Evans suggests that industrialization,
and its corresponding new media technologies, may in fact be destroying any real
potential for actual communication. Overall, Evans' advertising photographs
indicate that in modern capitalist society, signs, slogans and logos, catch
phrases, and visual metaphors may soon replace independent analysis and rational
Throughout his career, Evans continues to "lean toward the enchantment, the
visual power, of the aesthetically rejected object" (Evans, 1982, 220),
photographing and collecting billboards, advertisements, logos, and "no
trespassing," "no hunting," "no fishing," and "one way" signs. Shortly before
his death in 1975, he indicates that signs are now his primary focus and admits:
"I find that I do signs whenever I can find them. I usually swipe them too; I've
got a wonderful collection!" (Evans quoted in Purvis, 1993, 54). Ultimately,
Walker Evans offers readers an understanding of the prevalence, power, creative
potential, and influence of advertising in 1930s American society as well as an
understanding that advertising's current colonization of both the public and
private realm, is an extension of "hard-sell" advertising techniques instituted
during the depression. His photographs provide historical evidence as well as
ideological observations on living and working conditions for many Americans
during the 1930s and they also illustrate a structure of feeling regarding the
pervasiveness of advertising and its specific practices during this era. Evans'
focus on signs and advertising may appear to promote the easy access to
consumption, yet his work does not depict a society of affluence, but instead it
illustrates how advertising "magically" creates the appearance of plenty through
the repetition and arrangement of objects.
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