Walker Evans and New Orleans are by no means a natural couple. Evans' austerity, orderliness, and what Garry Winogrand once called "a certain kind of exquisite taste" make him the most Protestant of America's photographers. New Orleans is both the most Catholic and the most African of its cities, as is abundantly clear today, Mardi Gras.
When Evans visited the city, in December 1935 and January 1936, on assignment for the Farm Security Administration, there was no telling what the result would be.
Walker Evans: New Orleans architecture. Cast iron grillwork house near Lee Circle on Saint Charles Avenue. Louisiana. 1936. (Click directly on any of the photos to see larger versions.)
It's easy to imagine Evans being troubled and even repulsed by New Orleans' exuberance and flamboyant impulses.
He wasn't. In fact, Evans doesn't seem to have noticed that New Orleans was peculiar in any way at all. His photographs of New Orleans look no different from his photographs of Atlanta or Vicksburg or Bethlehem. Many are beautiful.
His subjects were similar, too. For instance, vernacular architecture, as in the photo above, had always fascinated him.
Walker Evans: New Orleans street corner. Louisiana. 1936.
And he loved signs. They're everywhere in his photos.
Walker Evans: New Orleans downtown street. Louisiana. 1935.
Street scenes, like signs, were also a constant subject.
Walker Evans: Movie theater on Saint Charles Street. Liberty Theater, New Orleans, Louisiana. 1935/6.
As were posters and popular culture.
The New Orleans of Walker Evans was specifically American, but it was generically American, as well. Those things that make New Orleans special were either invisible or uninteresting to him.
It's impossible to know what he would have made of Mardi Gras. Chances are that he would have passed on photographing it. He could shoot on the street as well as anyone, but he wasn't drawn to the joyous, the spontaneous, or the festive. The people in his photographs never look like they're having fun.
And he didn't like jazz.
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Note: All of the photos in this post are from the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection [FSA/OWI], at the Library of Congress. (Several hundred others that Evans made for the FSA can be seen at the same website.) Photos made by FSA and OWI photographers are not under copyright.