26 April 2011

Americana and Walker Evans

I hope you are all enjoying Walker Evans as much as I am, although I'm not sure that's possible. People ask me about living in America sometimes, and I happily oblige any question and answer as though I know something about America. The truth is, however, that I have not lived in the States for seven years, so when I tell someone about life in America, I am telling them a memory, the memory of being a 16-20 year old mostly, certainly not an adult. I say how things were, not how things are because I have no idea how things are, really. I consume a lot of US media, so I suppose that keeps me up-to-date and I have been back every year since 2003, I think. I don't think I've missed a year. Still, this is not the experience of someone living there now.

All that means is that for me, America becomes more and more of a memory every day that I am away, and with that, I think it becomes more and more of an idea rather than a reality. Being someone who is already quite prone to nostalgia, this is not good for giving any sense of a real picture of anything.

The American idea that I love, the one that I have only a very small experience of as a very small child in Northern Minnesota, is the America that Walker Evans seems to have taken pictures of. It is America from 1920ish to 1950ish. It is America before the sexual revolution, before we started taking things out of the box (you might remember that metaphor from my description of Istanbul). This is mostly fiction, of course: yes, things started to change in big ways around the end of the 50s, but things are always changing, and America has always been, in one way or another, in flux. We're just an adolescent of a country after all..

The real America before the sixties was a place of segregation, subordination of women, waste, and patriarchy. It is not something to go back to, certainly. It was not a better time: it was a different time and a much, much worse time for many people in the States. The clothes may have been better. That's about all I'm willing to say, I think. If there is a real image of America at the end of this time, something to remind us (me) that it was in no way idyllic, I suspect it is this.

But still, I am a sucker for nostalgia and ideas, and Walker Evans seems to capture sadness and insecurity and America emerging in the photos he took, both of people and buildings. And not without some attitude, here and there.