Whatever Was Splendid: New American Photographs

Aaron Schuman

Research output: Non-textual outputExhibition


In the introductory essay to Walker Evans’ American Photographs (1938), Lincoln Kirstein wrote, “[Walker Evans] can be considered a kind of disembodied burrowing eye, a conspirator against time and its hammers. … Here are the records of the age before imminent collapse." His pictures exist to testify to the symptoms of waste and selfi shness that caused the ruin and to salvage whatever was splendid for the future reference of the survivors.” Over the course of the last eighteen months, the economic, social, cultural, and political climates of both the United States and the world at large have frequently been likened to those of Evans’ time. Despite our survival of the Great Depression, as well as the rest of the twentieth century, similar symptoms of waste and selfishness have recurred, and once again we fi nd ourselves in an age that is seemingly threatened with “imminent collapse.” The exhibition Whatever Was Splendid explores the parallels that exist—both in America and in photography—between our own time and that of Evans, and the enduring power of American Photographs as discerned through contemporary U.S. photographic practice. In particular, the first chapter of American Photographs evidences the diversity and range of Evans’ photographic vision. Kirstein noted that Evans “elevat[ed] the casual, the everyday and the literal into specific, permanent symbols," and it is within this chapter where many of Evans’ American “symbols” reside—laborers, soldiers, and citizens of the city streets; barbershops, farm stands and clapboard shotgun shacks; main streets, civic statues, and grandiose boardinghouse facades; cars, cars, and more cars, roaming freely, sitting in neat rows, or lying abandoned by the side of the road; ubiquitous advertisements and torn billboards; playbills and political placards; movie posters, cryptic graffiti, and meticulously hand-painted storefront signs; the ghettos, the poor, the homeless, and the flood refugees; the god-fearing family, the loving couple, the man in the crowd, and the lonely girl looking out to sea; and so on. This profoundly ambitious and extensive collection of images—found within just the first fifty pages of Evans’s book—not only serves as a document of America in Evans’ time, but also prophetically catalogues a landscape, character, cultural experience, and visual vocabulary that remain both poignant and familiar within the country to this day. And in particular, this index bears an uncanny resemblance to the America described and preserved within photography since Evans, including that of today’s most exciting, perceptive, and original practitioners. At its heart, Whatever Was Splendid is centrally informed by the legacy of American Photographs, and by Evans’ vital contributions to the nation’s photographic language and traditions. That said, it is by no means intended as a nostalgic update or sentimental plea for photography (or, for that matter, America) to return to its past. As much as Evans’ precedent has provided both the inspiration and reinforcing framework for this exhibition, Whatever Was Splendid is first and foremost the manifestation of the intelligence, ingenuity, and multiplicity of voices and visions that can be found within current U.S. photographic practice. Yet consciously or not, all the photographers represented here have, in their own distinct ways, expanded upon many of the themes, strategies, clues, symbols, “certain sights, [and] certain relics of American civilization past or present” first glimpsed in American Photographs. They all inherently possess a somewhat familiar “burrowing eye,” and share a determination to record, testify, and salvage what they can of their own precarious age for its survivors. And just like Evans, they have both reinvigorated American photography and redefined their country—conceptually, aesthetically, culturally, politically, historically, photographically, and so on—within very contemporary terms, celebrating both the United States and its photography, as Kirstein put it, “with all [its] clear, hideous and beautiful detail, [its] open insanity and pitiful grandeur.”
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 12 Mar 2010
Event'Whatever Was Splendid: New American Photographs' - FotoFest Biennial 2010, Houston, USA
Duration: 12 Mar 2010 → …


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