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American Scenes

Small-Town America
Walker Evans, <i>Roadside Restaurant, Alabama</i>, 1936, gelatin silver print
zoom Walker Evans, Roadside Restaurant, Alabama, 1936, gelatin silver print


During the Great Depression of the 1930s, millions of people could not find work. They fell into poverty and led hard lives filled with despair. Many American artists and writers felt an obligation to make the public understand the plight of the unemployed. Their efforts resulted in a new art form—social documentary. Photography turned out to be one of the best ways of reporting the brutal realities of life in the 1930s.

The federal government recognized that photography could help bring about social change. In 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created a program to aid thousands of farmers and sharecroppers who had lost their land and livelihood because of drought and financial hardship. This new government agency (later called the Farm Security Administration) hired photographers to document the living conditions of these rural workers. As the project grew, photographers were sent all over the country to record what was going on in America during the Depression.

Walker Evans was one of the first photographers in the program. He traveled to West Virginia and Pennsylvania and later to Mississippi and Alabama, documenting the land, crops, schools, stores, roadside stands, and churches. He also photographed the people and their houses and belongings. Evans made it his mission to record a subject exactly as he found it; he didn’t arrange his pictures to heighten their effect. And no matter how dismal or squalid the surroundings, his subjects are portrayed with dignity.

During the summer of 1936, Evans went to Greensboro, Alabama, with the writer James Agee. For several weeks the two of them stayed with three families of sharecroppers, recording their lives in words and pictures. Evans’s photographs became the illustrations for Agee’s book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, an eye-opening portrayal of the hardships these families endured.

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1. Evans spent the summer of 1936 in Greensboro, Alabama.
2. A photograph of James Agee taken by Walker Evans (Walker Evans, Portrait of James Agee, 1937, gelatin silver print)
3. The bedroom of a sharecropper in Alabama where Evans and Agee stayed (Walker Evans, Floyd Burroughs' Bedroom, Hale County, Alabama , 1936, gelatin silver print)


December 2005