Sunday, February 08, 2009

Colorful postcard Americana and the black and white photography of Walker Evans

Austere Vision of Walker Evans Has Roots in Postcard Americana
The stark, black and white vision of photographer Walker Evans -- especially the photos he took for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) during the Depression -- is the last thing I would have associated with the almost sureally colorized picture postcards of the first three decades of the 20th Century. But Evans was a lifelong collector, beginning in childhood, and eventually amassed and cataloged some 9,000 of them -- and they were a major influence on his photography, to the point where he rephotographed some from the same vantage point.

Now New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art has a major exhibit documenting the connection and they've also published a catalog. Roberta Smith reviews the exhibit in the New York Times, and they also have a slide show. The postcard above shows Main Street cheerfully lined with cars in Lenoir, S.C.; the slide show offers a similar view in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. with a very different mood.

Why would an artist who disliked color photography most of his life (although he did some very interesting Polaroid work late in life) find such fascination in the faded pastels of these early postcards? The answer, I think, may lie in the difference between what the cards show and what they imply. The cards were made from black and white photographs that were retouched to take out fussy, extraneous detail and then hand-tinted, since direct color photography was not yet practical and Kodachrome lay years in the future.

Look at these early color postcards long enough, study their details carefully enough, and you'll begin to develop a sense for the black and white forms that are their foundation. Deciphering these images is not that different from the way a B&W photographer learns to decipher the underlying forms that are hidden by the tantalizing surfaces that dazzle our color vision. In this sense, the color postcards could almost have served as teaching aids for learning to see in black and white, made simpler by the fact that the underlying photographs had already been simplified to prepare them to survive the soft, colorful overlay they would acquire in the printing process.

The postcards also embody something else. Color is the language of everyday American optimism, the sense that things are pretty damn good, and getting better. Tragedy speaks in a more monochrome language. Implicit in each card was a darker side, in the form of a clean B&W image that provided the card's visual framework. This dual vision persisted right into the Great Depression -- people still mailed these cheerful tokens to each other, no matter how sad the message on the back might have been.

It was as if the FSA photographers, including Evans were determined to make the implicit explicit, to show people the reality of the dark underside of American capitalism at its lowest point. They primarily worked in black and white, and as a result, we still tend to think of the Depression era in shades of gray. (Some did shoot with the new Kodachrome, but those images were not published for many years -- you can see them on the Library of Congress Flickr site -- and it's easy to see why. The color images of Depression misery now seem surprisingly cheerful.)

I think our minds process color and black and white images in different parts of the brain, because color is the sense with which we perceive daylight and everyday life. Black and white is the visual language of night vision, of dreaming, of the dreamlike acquired skill we call reading, and nightmares. It just makes sense that we read color images and black and white images differently.

Makes you wonder what the long-term impact will be of color reproduction having so thoroughly saturated the modern world. Would the Great Depression have seemed as tragic viewed in 1080p high-definition color television? And what would the world seem like today if high-def only broadcast in black and white?

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