The American Walker Evans began taking photographs in earnest in the latter part of the 1920s. The native Midwesterner had moved to New York after spending time in Europe, where he had hoped to launch a literary career that never quite took off. His earliest photographic efforts were promising, but he improved considerably after seeing the work of a number of other photographers whose work was being shown in New York, many of them by Alfred Stieglitz at his gallery, called simply ‘291.’ Among the artists and photographers Evans befriended during this time was Berenice Abbott, who had also just returned from her stint in Paris with the huge cache of Atgets she’s rescued. It’s impossible to say exactly how much Evans was influenced by the Atgets he saw, but there’s little question that his imagery shifted to a closer formal alignment with that of the Parisian’s.
By 1935 Evans, who had securely established his own style, was hired by the Farm Security Administration, along with a number of other distinguished photographers to document America in the depths of the Depression. Not one to follow orders well, he saw this as an opportunity to explore his own aesthetic and social concerns, often in direct opposition to the wishes of the agency’s head, Roy Stryker, a non-photographer. Evans was at his most creative during this time, making most of his best known images between 1935 and ’38.
Not only does the 1935 New Orleans image above show us one of the craziest looking barber shops ever to exist, featuring a woman grinning in a black and white spiderweb blouse, but it also illustrates Evans’ rigorous formal strategy. What at first glance appears to be a straightforward image of a storefront on closer inspection reveals a great deal more. By including portions of elements, the wrought iron balconies above, the window of the shop next door on the left, the door on the right, and the headlight, bumper and tire of a car, a world beyond the frame is alluded to. Having a sense of what these elements would have looked like in their entirety the barber shop can be seen as merely an interlocked piece in a complicated urban jigsaw puzzle.