There are photographs that transcend their moment of shutter flash and become markers of a time when the symbol and what is symbolized become inseparable. Witness Eddie Adams’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of General Nguy?n Ng?c Loan executing Vietcong officer Nguy?n V?n Lém. It has almost become impossible to talk of the war without our consciousness tapping this picture.
Similarly, to talk of the Great Depression is to access Walker Evans’s photo of Allie Mae Burroughs from America’s collective unconscious. Burroughs, a cotton tenant farmer’s wife, looks into Walker’s camera – and thus to us – through time, a smile hidden somewhere in the gestalt of her face. Her mouth is straight, there’s no light in her eyes, and wrinkles ripple across her brow, yet somehow, there’s hope conveyed. Her portrait may hold the definition of Evans’ phrase “lyric documentary.”
Evans was employed by the Farm Security Administration to document the Great Depression between 1935 and 1936, and about 40 of his photos are on display at the Stephen Cohen Gallery. Most of us saw Evans’ work relegated to a small box in our American History textbooks from grade school: to see Joe’s Auto Graveyard spread across an entire wall, rather than cropped and bisected as the picture is traditionally copied, infuses the lifeless automobiles with a transcendent human quality, alluding to the owners and makers of the cars whose own fate is probably not much different.
The gravitas of these images cannot be understated: to move from a sharecroppers family, legs bedazzled with sores, to any of the other current pop-art exhibitions occurring around town is a sobering and, yes, depressing experience.
Stephen Cohen Gallery is located at 7358 Beverly Boulevard in Los Angeles. For more information, call (323) 937-5525 or visit www.stephencohengallery.com.