Walker Evans Penny Picture Display, Savannah 1936

  • Not on view

It only cost a penny to have your portrait taken in Savannah, Georgia, in 1936. The studio operator—part photographer, part businessman—arranged his favorite examples in a neat grid to attract customers. This window display caught the attention of Evans, who loved the unaffected charm of useful, vernacular photographs and adopted their straightforward look in his own work. He observed, “Documentary? That’s a very sophisticated and misleading word. And not really clear. . . . You see, a document has use, whereas art is really useless. Therefore art is never a document, though it certainly can adopt that style.”

Gallery label from 2019
Additional text

In this photographer’s studio window in Savannah, Georgia, there are fifteen blocks of fifteen pictures each, for a total of 225 portraits, less the ones hidden by the letters. Most of the sitters appear at least twice, but altogether there are more than one hundred different men, women, and children: a community.

Evans explored the United States of the 1930s—its people, its architecture, and its cultural symbols (including its photographs)—with the disinterested eye of an archaeologist studying an ancient civilization. Penny Picture Display, Savannah might be interpreted as a celebration of democracy or as a condemnation of conformity. Evans took no side.

The photograph is very much a modern picture—crisp, planar, and resolutely self-contained. But instead of reconfirming a timeless ideal, as artistically ambitious American photographers before Evans generally had aimed to do, it captures a very particular and contemporary moment, rooted in history. And it announces Evans’s allegiance to the plainspoken vernacular of ordinary photographers, such as the portraitist who made the pictures in this window.

Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)
Gelatin silver print
8 5/8 × 6 15/16" (21.9 × 17.6 cm)
Gift of Willard Van Dyke
Object number
© 2024 Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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