Walker Evans dropped out of college in 1923 and moved to New York with the ambition of becoming a writer. Three years later he was in Paris auditing classes in modern art and literature at the Sorbonne, concentrating on the work of Flaubert and Baudelaire. He returned to New York in 1927, and, suffering from writer's block, began to make photographs. "I was a passionate photographer, and for a while somewhat guiltily. I thought it was a substitute for something else--well for writing for one thing." Evans's earliest photographs are direct observations of street life--snapshots of electric signs, street peddlers, and Coney Island bathers--and abstract, geometric compositions of construction sites, sewer gratings, and the shadows cast by elevated train platforms. His method of documenting the city combined the concerns of the historian and anthropologist with the talents of a graphic artist. Creating an exhaustive visual catalogue of significant, if ordinary, facts, he forged a new idiom from the American vernacular. Concise in form and poetic in a prosaic way, this idiom of the neglected and the commonplace would change the direction of American photography. Evans's interest in street signs, both commercial and handcrafted, shows the influence of Eugène Atget, specifically his photographs of Parisian shopwindows that had been admired by the Surrealists. This photograph of a crudely constructed sidewalk advertisement for religious articles was probably made in an Italian neighborhood on the lower East Side of Manhattan. In the printing stage, Evans cropped the negative at both the bottom and top to eliminate the heads of pedestrians and to hang the votive candles and offerings from the top of the picture, much as his contemporary Joseph Cornell might have placed them in a box. In a brilliant assessment of the scene, Evans superimposed graphic signs onto textual signs, a conflation that represents one of his first attempts to merge pictures with words.
Inscription: Signed and inscribed on mount, verso BR: "Walker Evans, 1929"
[Graphics International]; Gilman Paper Company Collection, New York, November 30, 1977
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