Snapshots in Time

During the lean years of the 1930s, New Deal photographers were mandated to document the nation's suffering. Their Louisiana pictures told another story.



Times were tough. It was the 1930s and the Great Depression was raging, unemployment was soaring, and much of America was parched by the worst drought in decades. Photographs from the period are etched in America's collective memory: Walker Evans' impoverished Southern sharecroppers, and Dorothea Lange's California migrant mothers with gaunt faces and children in ragged clothes.

President Franklin Roosevelt's administration responded to the hardships with the New Deal, a series of public works programs designed to rebuild the infrastructure while providing much-needed jobs. The results can be seen all over New Orleans, in places like City Park, where many of the bridges and buildings as well as most of the public sculpture are products of the WPA, or Works Progress Administration.

Although the WPA artists and writers programs were legendary -- the forerunners of today's National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities -- all those haunting photos by Evans, Lange and the others were actually products of another New Deal program, the Farm Security Administration, a related but unique operation. The FSA photographers had a mandate to document the conditions faced by the ordinary Americans who bore the brunt of the suffering, and Lange and Evans were among a select group of its most accomplished artists. Many were active in Louisiana, where people were no strangers to poverty even in the best of times.

But if the FSA photographs from Louisiana never became famous in the way that Lange's migrant workers or Evans' sharecroppers became the icons of an age, the best of them were outstanding for other reasons. It's well known that this area has affected many artists and writers, having been a catalyst for the mature styles of Edgar Degas, Walt Whitman and William Faulkner, among others. Nothing that dramatic happened to the FSA photographers, who mostly kept moving and never settled in, yet uncharacteristic departures distinguished their work here. The seductive spirits of place were apparently felt by even such fervent social realists such as Lange, Ben Shahn and Marion Post Wolcott, artists who were devoted to showing America the harsh truth about itself -- but who now found themselves producing pictures that somehow oozed charm and whimsy.

Lange's Louisiana Negress and Shahn's Creole Girls, Plaquemines Parish, are more lyrical than anything either had previously produced. Rather than visually sounding the alarm on behalf of an endangered nation, those images seemed to suggest that life goes on, sometimes even with style and joie de vivre, despite it all. It must have been very disorienting for them.

Of the eight best known FSA photographers, all but Arthur Rothstein were active in Louisiana. The rest, including Lange, Evans, Shahn, Wolcott, Russell Lee, Carl Mydans and John Vachon, adapted as best they could. Yet none was affected more than Walker Evans, whose close encounters with the French Quarter and its resident bohemia changed his life.

When he first visited in the spring of 1935, Walker Evans, at age 31, was the hottest of the new wave of modern photographers. His work featured starkly graphic compositions with details that revealed much about the life of his subjects. He later became the first photographer to be given a solo show at the Museum of Modern Art, and by the end of the decade was hailed as the greatest American photographer of his generation. In New York, his chums included such blue-chip bohemians as Marcel Duchamp, but in New Orleans he felt out of his element.

He had been commissioned to document abandoned plantations, and while the idea appealed to his love of decadence, the city itself had spooked him. There was something about it that was alluring yet unsettling, especially the French Quarter. "Evans felt its aura of decay and, in its distinct Franco-Latin cultural cross, a libertine atmosphere that he found strangely threatening," writes Belinda Rathbone in Walker Evans: A Biography (Houghton Mifflin). In fact, the Quarter reminded Evans of Havana, which he had photographed for a book illustration assignment and which brought out his own errant, libertine side. There, he had never bothered to read what he was supposed to be illustrating, instead spending his time exploring the city and hanging out with a new friend, a writer named Ernest Hemingway. He somehow got away with it, but it was a close call.

When Evans first hit New Orleans, he sought out the legendary painter Paul Ninas, who arranged to meet him at a French Quarter restaurant. When he got there, Ninas and his 22-year-old wife, Jane, had already arrived. They all got along very well, especially Evans and Jane. Like Evans, she was from the Midwest, although her family roots were in Louisiana, where she had spent the past few years studying art at Newcomb College. Evans took the liberty of inviting her on a road trip upriver to photograph plantations. She agreed and the affable Ninas offered no objection. After that, Jane often accompanied Evans on his forays into the countryside.

It was probably all rather innocent at the outset, although biographer Rathbone not so subtly suggests that Evans was something of a womanizer -- even while hinting that the real reason why Ninas may have been so accommodating was because he wanted to spend more time with his friend, a young designer named Christine Fairchild, with whom Jane suspected he was having an affair. Whatever the subplot, Evans and Jane hit the road and by the time he finished photographing Belle Grove, they had fallen in love, or so the story goes. Rathbone gives the environment credit for triggering "a new spirit of romance" that overruled Evans' usual emotional reserve.

What happened next is a tangled tale of intrigue. As he did in Cuba, Evans took more chances than usual. Back in New York, he found ways to stay in touch with Jane, even arranging an amorous summer rendezvous on her way to visit her parents. Later in 1935, he returned to New Orleans courtesy of the FSA. Here, Evans, Jane, Ninas and Christine Fairchild soon resumed their old ways, hanging out together as a seemingly festive foursome. It was all very cordial until Ninas began to suspect that things were getting out of control to an extent that might actually threaten his marriage. One evening, while Evans was visiting, Ninas unexpectedly pulled a pistol and, waving it in the air, declared that if Evans was man enough to take his wife, then go ahead and try it, or else go away.

It was Evans' worst nightmare: America had suddenly turned into Cuba right before his eyes. Startled, he stammered a few protests and quickly took his leave. Afterwards, he tried donning a disguise in an unsuccessful attempt to see her again, but finally beat a strategic retreat out of town, ending his relationship with New Orleans -- but not with Jane, for the events that he had set in motion would reverberate for decades thereafter.

But for the next few months, at least, Evans was content to collaborate with his best friend, James Agee, on a book about Alabama sharecroppers. Published as Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, it was hailed as the defining study of the rural South in the 1930s.

In the ensuing years, other photographers covered Louisiana for the FSA, with unpredictable results all around. Marion Post Wolcott, who shared Dorothea Lange's passion for social justice as well as Walker Evans' flair for formal composition, was active all over the state, but it was her attempt to photograph Isleno muskrat trappers near Delacroix Island in St. Bernard Parish that typified the FSA experience in Louisiana.

At first, all the necessary elements seemed to be in place. The depression's poverty and deprivation were still the big story, and Delacroix Island had no shortage of either. Yet, the trappers were unlikely symbols of America's plight, as Wolcott soon discovered. Not only were they adept at getting by on very little, they had made it into a lifestyle with their own festive customs and cuisine. Wolcott realized this one day after a memorable meal of muskrat in garlic and red wine sauce caused her to fall asleep on a pile of animal skins. Such hedonistic people could never be poster children for an era of national suffering, she decided, and demanded to be transferred out West, where the misery was unmitigated by quaint customs.

Other FSA photographers had similar Louisiana experiences. Ben Shahn's Creole Girls, Plaquemines Parish is a striking image, but very unlike Shahn, who ordinarily focused on the struggles of the working class. Carl Mydans and John Vachon, among the most news-oriented of the FSA photographers, ended up with images that were unusually anthropological. Russell Lee, known for his photographs of Oklahoma migrant workers, used his legendary empathy to record remarkable pictures of black Creole musicians in Crowley, and Cajuns at play in Raceland. The images are invaluable for what they tell us about Louisiana in the 1930s -- but they might as well have been of Fiji Islanders for all they had to do with the nation's economic plight.

In 1941, in the wake of Pearl Harbor, the Roosevelt administration decided to merge the FSA photography project with the Office of War Information (OWI), and the photographers who had been America's official witnesses to the struggles of the 1930s were soon dispersed into different occupations. Some, like Mydans and Vachon, covered the war for the news media. Lee worked as a documentary photographer for the Air Force. Wolcott married and soon became as zealous about motherhood as she had been about her documentary photography. Evans landed a position at Fortune magazine that gave him the freedom and leisure, though not the salary, that he craved.

1941 was also the year that Evans and Jane married. They had lived happily together for a few years after she and Ninas had finally separated. Life for the newly wedded couple continued in the same amicable vein, at least for a while. But as time went by, Evans, like Ninas before him, seemed to take Jane for granted, even subtly encouraging her interest in other romances. He was blindsided, however, when in 1955 she left him for another man. Perhaps to his surprise, he was devastated. Later that year, his best friend and collaborator James Agee died of a heart attack.

In one year, Evans had lost the two people who had meant the most to him. Professionally, he was still an important American photographer, but his star would never again shine as brightly as it had in the 1930s, when he was the leader of the pack, and Havana and New Orleans had tempted him to take chances and live dangerously.

Yet he sensed that, as far as Jane was concerned, what had happened was his own doing. During a chance encounter with her in Connecticut in 1967, where he was teaching photography at Yale, Evans confessed that he had never really been faithful to anything but his negatives. It was a startling admission, and his final word on a series of events that had begun in a French Quarter restaurant more than three decades earlier. Walker Evans was 71 years old when he died, in New Haven, in the spring of 1975.

Shopfront, New Orleans; Walker Evans; 1935
  • Shopfront, New Orleans; Walker Evans; 1935
Creole Girls, Plaquemines Parish; Ben Shahn; 1935
  • Creole Girls, Plaquemines Parish; Ben Shahn; 1935
A Louisiana Negress, Dorothea Lange, 1937
  • A Louisiana Negress, Dorothea Lange, 1937
Negro Musicians, Russell Lee, 1938
  • Negro Musicians, Russell Lee, 1938
Crab Boil, Raceland;  Russell Lee; 1938
  • Crab Boil, Raceland; Russell Lee; 1938
New Orleans Market, Carol Mydans, 1936
  • New Orleans Market, Carol Mydans, 1936
Dock Worker, New Orleans; John Cachon; 1941
  • Dock Worker, New Orleans; John Cachon; 1941
St. Rosalia Parade, Kenner; Russell Lee; 1938
  • St. Rosalia Parade, Kenner; Russell Lee; 1938

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