New York Photo Review
Volume 4 Issue 19 April 30 to May 6, 2013

The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino

A Different Kind of History

Everyday America: Photographs from the Berman Collection

Photo by Walker Evans . Source:
Walker Evans, "New England Portugese Bedroom, 1930".
Thirty–one photographers cover more than 75 years of “what’s changing and unchanging” in “Everyday America: Photographs from the Berman Collection”. But the famous faces and places authorities typically choose as the proper content of our national history are not here. Instead the photographers present a sort of hodgepodge history, made up of images we might have noticed ourselves if we had been there at the time. These images are not unfamiliar, though they are unknown to us. Here’s a partial list: houses, vehicles, shopkeepers, offices, lovers, amusement parks, suburbs, couples, orchards, graves, dancers, motels, kids, train trestles, shoppers, barber shops – and more.

This is a different kind of history, and I do not mean to make fun of it. On the contrary, what seemed at first a jumble ended up a better orientation to America’s past than rigid groupings by timeline or artist would have been. In this context it’s interesting that the show’s curators refrain from attaching photographers’ names and picture titles alongside the works. Are they trying to further isolate the pictures in their own discrete time and space? The experience became just me and the images – as though I was looking into a viewfinder moving through time. I found it enormously refreshing.

And the pictures are superb. Roughly grouped under the rubric of “documentary,” the photographers avoid sentimentality and (except for one mocking photo by Martin Parr) post-modern irony. Their tool of choice is most often a large, unwieldly 4x5 or 8x10 view camera, which requires fixed intentions and emphasizes clarity and specificity.

Arguably, almost all the styles in this show can be understood as versions of Walker Evans’ style. And, indeed, Evans––with the largest number and often the best pictures in the show—is the star here. We see, for example, his fascination with the art and language of commercial displays and signs––he called them “the pitch direct” ––echoed in pictures by Aaron Siskind and John Vachon and expanded to pictures of church signs and scribbled graffiti by Dorothea Lange and Helen Levitt.

It was Evans, building on the work of Eugene Atget, who first understood that the written word in public is important socially and aesthetically. His homage to skilled and graceful sign-painting in “Outdoor Advertising Sign (Dry Cleaning) near Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 1935” and minimalist white-paint-on-black board in “Shoeshine Shine in a Southern Town, 1936” show us that long before MBAs discovered them brands were, for good or evil,nindelible.

Or chaotic, as Robert Frank shows in his New York street shots from the 1950s.” A messy script daubed on a sign above a trash-filled sidewalk maniacally proclaims “1-pound giblets for $3” over and over in his “Untitled (Poultry Store Front). This is Frank working characteristically against the grain, no doubt well aware that the signs’ thumbed-nose to craftsmanship represents a social change. What has happened to Evans’ folk artist/sign painter? Is he drunk? Or has be been replaced by a machine?

Photo by Russell Lee . Source:
Russell Lee, "Jack Whinery, Homesteader and Family, Pietown, New Mexico, September, 1940".
The transformation of the show’s themes over time is one of its great pleasures. For instance, John Humble, a West Coast photographer has photographed the streets and buildings of Los Angeles in large-format color since the 1970s. His color shot of a low-slung fast-food restaurant, the show’s “12511 Venice Blvd, Mar Vista (Canton Kitchen), 1997” at first seems garish with multiple signs and neon windows. But we soon understand that Humble’s picture is, in its way, as modest and precise as an Evan’s.

What’s different in this picture (aside from the color) is the rest of the world. In the shadow of an appliance parts warehouse under an illuminated billboard, the Canton Kitchen itself, a place about the size of a Manhattan studio apartment, is crouched and pushed up against a nondescript parking lot on the other side. Given this, and the fact that no one walks in L.A., it’s hardly surprising that four signs are needed — one of them towering above the tiny building (Chinese FOOD to GO).

Numerous examples from the show make clear that Evans was drawn to deserted, closed and boarded-up buildings, a theme repeated here by, among others, William Christenberry, Jack Delano, David Husom and Mitch Epstein. But where Christenberry’s freshly-painted white church in Hale County, Alabama in the 1970s exudes hope despite the boards nailed over its windows, Epstein’s bricked-up factories in Holyoke, Massachusetts in 2000 emanate despair. Buildings have a spirit, just like living creatures.

What has changed?

It was Evans’ great gift to infuse inanimate objects with a tender life most photographers grant only to other human beings. But, perhaps as a corollary to this, throughout his career he seemed reluctant to make intimate portraits, preferring to pose people in the midst of larger scenes, if at all. (An exception – perhaps a telling one – is his New York City series of subway portraits, shot in secret, spy-camera-style.)

Could an unconscious aping by curator or collector of Evans’ people-shyness explain why so few portraits are in this show? It’s a real surprise, given the size of the space, that all the significant people pictures can be grouped in one corner. Clearly, this is not because they’re unconvincing or weak. On the contrary, this section of the show may be its liveliest.

I say this in spite of the fact that many of the portraits in “Everyday America” are not “everyday” at all. They are classic black and white prints of refugee families and young working men fleeing the dust-bowl by Dorothea Lange, Margaret Bourke-White and other Depression-era shooters These dramatic pictures are interesting, but there’s something musty and old-fashioned about them – they were widely printed at the time and now are so well-known as a genre it’s hard to really see them clearly. But then comes an early color shot by FSA photographer Russell Lee to pierce through the decades.

In Lee’s picture, “Jack Whinery, Homesteader and Family, Pietown, New Mexico, September, 1940, ”a handsome young working-class man and his blonde, blue-eyed wife, holding their toddler son, stare resolutely into the camera. Behind them is the cardboard-covered wall of their new rough-built shack with plastic stretched over an unframed window. A swatch of flowered fabric for curtains is tentatively pinned up near the window. A Coca-Cola poster is hanging on the wall.

The Great Depression is just ending and Pearl Harbor is only about a year away. Yet, “We are a God-fearing, can-do American family,” this picture says, “and we are not afraid.” We believe in this family. In the final reel, we tell ourselves, it will all work out.

By 1983, when Mitch Epstein made “Ybor City, Florida (Mother with Brown Paper Bag), ” belief was harder to come by. In Epstein’s picture a thin man in a ragged straw hat glares belligerently at the camera. Behind him, dressed in cheap, ill-fitting clothes and clutching an old paper bag, his wife and three young children stand apart, looking down at the sidewalk, off to the side, anywhere but at the camera. They are waiting for the shame to end. But it won’t.

What has changed?

Flash forward to 1997. Joel Sternfeld ‘s “A Man Walking Home, Washington Market Park, NYC” shows a well-dressed late-middle-aged black man standing by a lamppost in a lush city park in an upscale neighborhood. The man leans back, smiling, balancing two shopping bags. We see that he is next to a garden. Tomatoes are growing. A sunflower nods. The man’s mood is peaceful, friendly. After so many years, he feels at home.

Something has changed.

Everyday America: Photographs from the Berman Collection

Steven Kasher Gallery
521 W 23rd St.
Chelsea         Map

212 966 3978

Thursday, February 21 to
Sunday, March 23, 2014
Hours: Tue-Sat, 11 to 6

Making Caribbean Dance by Susanna Sloat