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Walker Evans' Depression-era photos revisited in New York exhibit

By Ellen Freilich

NEW YORK (Reuters) - From a photograph of an Alabama cotton picker's wife to scenes of urban poverty, the photographs of Walker Evans, on display in a new exhibit at New York's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), shaped Americans' view of the Great Depression.

The exhibit, which runs through January 26, 2014, marks the 75th anniversary of Evans' one-person photography exhibit, the first in MoMA's history.

It also coincides with the publication of an anniversary edition of his landmark book, "American Photographs."

"Evans was one of the most influential artists of the 20th century," said Sarah Meister, the exhibit's curator. "His cool, pure vision revealed photography's lyric potential and inspired generations of photographers and other visual artists."

To help illustrate his influence, near the hall featuring Evans' photographs are galleries showing works by artists Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol.

"The placement underscores the connection between prewar avant-garde practices in America and the legacy of Evans' explorations of signs and symbols, commercial culture, and the experience of ordinary Americans," Meister said.

The exhibit is comprised of about 60 prints from the museum's collection that were included in the 1938 exhibition and book.

It features "Alabama Cotton Tenant Farmer's Wife, 1936," a photograph that gazes out from the history textbooks of American high school students, evoking the bleak existence of agricultural workers in places where crop prices plummeted and the soil turned to dust.

"Poverty, rural and urban poverty, indigenous architecture, the automobile culture, movies - Evans found all of these subjects very interesting and he photographed them repeatedly in different ways before 1938," Meister said.

In "Sidewalk and Shopfront, New Orleans, 1935," a woman stands in a barber shop doorway, the stripes on her dress subtly connecting with those on the traditional barber shop pole.

"Negro Barber Shop Interior, Atlanta, 1936" is absent of customers, leaving the viewer to wonder who might be about to enter the shop or to contemplate the still life of the barber's chairs and accoutrements.

"Alabama Tenant Farmer Family Singing Hymns, 1936" prompts the viewer to wonder how the individuals in the picture felt about religion.

The titles of the photos in the exhibit, all taken in the midst of the Great Depression that began in 1929 and endured until the early 1940s, are slightly separated from the pictures, giving viewers more room to interpret the photos for themselves.

"When these photographs were first put forward in 1938, many had been made in the previous two or three years. They depicted a very specific, but also very fresh, perspective on what an American photograph was and, you might argue, on what America was," Meister said.

"Now one sees them through the lens of history and yet, 75 years later, these pictures resonate with audiences."

(Reporting by Ellen Freilich; Editing by Patricia Reaney and Vicki Allen)

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