In 1938, 75 years ago this fall, MoMA installed its first one-person photography show, comprising 100 prints by Walker Evans, with the self-consciously ambiguous title American Photographs. (After all, what exactly makes a photograph American?) In the intervening years, this groundbreaking exhibition has endured thanks to the accompanying publication. Yet, despite having identical names, the original exhibition and book differed in meaningful ways—which have largely been overlooked due to the ephemeral nature of, and dearth of documentation about, the show. Through research for the current anniversary installation (and my dissertation, which happens to be on Walker Evans), we were able to gather information on and bring attention to some of those distinctions. (Special thanks to Ed Grazda, who donated scaled prints of all 100 works in the 1938 exhibition.)
First, while the 1938 exhibition featured 100 prints, the book contained 87 images; 54 of them were in both, meaning that 46 from the exhibition were not published in the book and 33 pictures in the book were not in the exhibition. Of those 54 common images, there were at least three variants—Alabama Tenant Farmer Family Singing Hymns (1936), Alabama Cotton Tenant Farmer Wife (1936), and Arkansas Flood Refugee (1937)—and most had different croppings, either with more or less information along the edges (such as Westchester, New York, Farmhouse) . This suggests that Evans did not fetishize a single image, cropping, or even selection of works, but rather was interested in the mutable and indefinite aspects of photography—he even changed the checklist again for the circulating exhibition.
Whereas Evans emphasized the single picture on a blank spread and in sequence for the book, he explored other display modes and printing techniques for the exhibition. A short note, which Evans wrote in preparation, summarizes many of these aspects: “Show Ideas: small defined sections, people, faces, architecture, repetition, small pictures, large pictures.” Rather than mounting a sequence of images in two sections as he did for the book, Evans created small groups or clusters of prints according to genres (landscape, portraiture, still life, social documentary, street photography, etc.) or subject matter (vernacular architecture, architectural details, interiors, signs, etc.) and even arranged photographs in vertical stacks of two and three (as shown below and re-created in the current exhibition). As installation instructions for the traveling exhibition make clear, Evans gave equal thought to the groupings in the exhibition and the sequencing of the book “in order to avoid any possible monotony and to compare similar and contrasting forms and subjects.”
In the book, most of the images take up the width or height of the page. For the exhibition, however, Evans varied the scale of prints through croppings and enlargements—unlike many photographers of his generation, Evans did not prize the unadulterated contact print. House in New Orleans (1935), for example, which was the first image in the exhibition, is a roughly 5 1/2 x 3 1/2″ print of a detail of a house that Evans photographed with an 8 x 10″ view camera. He chose to cut the print down to focus on the wrought iron ornamentation, and it’s possible that he made the print while experimenting with the postcard format for a project at MoMA in 1936–38.
While the book and exhibition differed in these ways, both pushed against established norms. In the exhibition, Evans glued the unframed prints directly to the wall. He did not treat them as precious art objects. In both, he prohibited captions or any information from being in close proximity to the images. As a result, American Photographs did not provide an easily digestible narrative or meaning like other picture stories, photo books, and exhibitions of “documentary” photographs during the 1930s. It’s this openness and indeterminacy—even in the images themselves—that has continued to make American Photographs such an intelligent and admirable project today.