Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Off the clock: Walker Evans and the crisis of American Capital, 1933–1938
by May, Jessica Lee, Ph.D., University of California, Berkeley, 2010, 250; 3444817
Abstract (Summary)

This dissertation examines the photographs of Walker Evans made during a crucial period of his career—the years 1933-38—and uses a simple question about Walker Evans's photographs as a springboard from which to examine his career and the place of documentary photography in Depression and post-Depression American culture: Why did Evans train his camera lens so frequently on people who appear to be working class but are not at work? Throughout the 1930s, Evans regularly and successfully made pictures of poor and working people, but he largely elided the two major tropes of pictures of working people by neither photographing bodies bent over machine or field, nor focusing on unemployment lines and scenes of labor unrest. Evans was also interested in things that were not at work—he pictured forms of industrial infrastructure that were not in use such as railroads and factories, decaying or damaged signage for events that had already happened, and—most famously—a great number of unoccupied buildings. I argue that this interest in the obsolescent and the not-working constitute a sustained meditation on his contemporary history.

My interpretation of Evans's photographs from this crucial period of history focuses on the formal imperatives that ordered his photographic practice, and make the case that Evans found the crux of photography's medium specificity in its relationship to time. Time, under the conditions of industrial capitalism, thus occupied a position of both formal and social importance throughout his career. In the first chapter of this dissertation, I argue that Evans developed a repertoire of street portraiture that differed from previous models of documentary photography in its refusal to create narrative contexts for the subjects he pictured. That initial act of refusal on Evans's part can be read as a formal choice and also as a social choice: with it, he abandoned a tradition of picturing the poor associated with Progressive reform politics. In the second chapter I argue that Evans's work in 1936 can be read within a larger cultural conversation about the relationship between movement and stillness, and that his approach to the working poor in the Mississippi Delta Region consistently refused to picture them as the subjects of irreducible, unchanging poverty. The third and final chapter addresses Evans's 1938 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, American Photographs, and argues that the exhibition itself should be read as a proxy for the photographer's travels through the country; further, that it should also be read as a claim by the photographer for the importance of a model of artistic freedom that elided the kinds of employment models that characterized much photographic work during the period.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Lovell, Margaretta M.
Commitee: Grimaldo Grigsby, Darcy, Walker, Richard A.
School: University of California, Berkeley
Department: History of Art
School Location: United States -- California
Source: DAI-A 72/05, Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: Art history
Keywords: Documentary, Evans, Walker, Great Depression, Modernism, Photography, Time
Publication Number: 3444817
ISBN: 9781124529493
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