In Evans’ pictures of temples or shelters the presence or absence of the people who created them is the most important thing. The structures are social rather than artistic monuments. In choosing as his subject-matter disintegration and its contrasts, he has managed to elevate fortuitous accidents of juxtaposition into ordained design (Lincoln Kirstein, Walker Evans: American Photographs, p. 195).
First published in 1938 by The Museum of Modern Art to coincide with Evans’ first major museum exhibition, American Photographs stands as one of the most seminal photographic books of the 20th century. 'The book, published under the same title as the exhibition, is the lasting evidence of a temporal event destined for disappearance. But more than a mere catalogue that documents the contents of an exhibition, American Photographs is a real book, certainly the first modern book of photographs, against which all others must be measured' (Gilles Mora and John T. Hill, Walker Evans: The Hungry Eye, p. 161).
The print offered here of Wooden Church, South Carolina, 1936, is on the original, three-ring-binder mount Evans used in his maquette for the book, with titling and notations in the artist’s hand typical of other maquette pages. Wooden Church, South Carolina, 1936, was included in both the exhibition and the book form of American Photographs. It appears as plate 17 of Part Two, embedded in a stunning sequence of images of the facades of buildings, both religious and secular. Many of the similarly-mounted and captioned pages from Evans’ book maquette are in the collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum, formerly in the collection of Arnold Crane, while several others are at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The negative for this image is located at The Metropolitan Museum of Art as part of the Walker Evans Archive.
At the time of this image, Evans was working as a photographer for the Resettlement Administration (RA) of the Department of Agriculture. Established during the Great Depression in the Spring of 1935 by President Roosevelt, the RA had been 'entrusted with the task of bringing the facts before the public … [to make] the rural problem known through the press, the radio, motion pictures, and still photography.' The goal was to show 'how Americans live and what their problems are… to confront people with each other, the urban with the rural, the inhabitants of one section with those of other sections of the country, in order to promote a wider and more sympathetic understanding of one for the other' (Jeff Rosenheim, '"The Cruel Radiance of What Is": Walker Evans and the South', Walker Evans, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2000, p. 73).
By the Fall of 1935, Roy Stryker, who headed the Information Division of the RA, had negotiated a year-long contract with Evans to conduct a photographic survey of America. Already an established working photographer and ever the outsider, Evans intended to retain full control over his images and work, even while in government employ. Evans noted in his journals at the time that in return for 'cameras,' 'car,' 'photo supplies,' and 'letters & official entree,' he would give '1 complete set prints and work records,' followed by this entry:
'Never under any circumstances ask … [me] to do anything more than these things. Mean never make photographic statements for the government, or do photographic chores for gov. Or anyone in the gov. No matter how powerful—this is pure record not propaganda. The value and if you like, even the propaganda value for the government lies in the record itself which in the long run will prove an intelligent and farsighted thing to have done. NO POLITICS whatever' (as quoted by Jeff Rosenheim in Walker Evans, The Museum of Modern Art, p. 73).
Walker Evans, along with Edward Hopper, Charles Burchfield, Paul Strand and Andrew Wyeth, was of the generation of American artists who had striven to break from European ideals of image-making. The sensuousness of light in Hopper’s paintings is evidenced here, as is a straightforward but poetic depiction of life. Photographers, in fully embracing Modernism, found themselves defending against a mechanistic oversimplification implied by the term ‘documentary photography.’ Early on Evans addressed this, writing 'Documentary? That’s a very sophisticated and misleading word. And not really clear. You have to have a sophisticated ear to receive that word. The term should be documentary style.' This work, and all of American Photographs, is a testament to that belief.