Daily Archives: February 1, 2011

Walker Evans in Salem

Browsing around the “past exhibitions” section of the website of the Metropolitan Museum of Art for no particular reason, I encountered some stunning photographs of Salem buildings by Walker Evans (1903-75), the great American photographer.  I had only a vague knowledge of Evans, primarily identifying him as a photographer of people rather than places, particularly people like the woman below, an Alabama tenant farmer’s wife at the height of the Great Depression.  This photograph is from the vast collection of images Evans produced for the Farm Security Administration, with the specific aim of documenting the economic devastation in rural America in the 1930s.

According to his biography (there are several:  I consulted Belinda Rathbone, Walker Evans:  a Biography), Evans and a companion took a road trip through New England in the spring of 1931, before he began his work for the government. They were looking for buildings from America’s prosperous past, both still gleaming and slightly weathered.  Salem had much to offer Evans in both regards, but the photographs that survive from his time here do not include any federal buildings, so closely associated with the city’s golden age.  Instead, Evans seemed to have been drawn to Greek and Gothic Revival structures, including City Hall, two Broad Street houses, and what must be the old Peabody Estate at Kernwood, later pulled down by the Kernwood Country Club.  He also made prints of the Assembly House on Federal Street, an eighteenth-century building which he identified as Greek Revival, and the ultimate Gothic (or Norman) Revival structure, the Boston and Maine Railroad Depot, demolished in 1954 (virtually overnight, according to local lore and legend).  The final image is a portrait of the photographer himself as a young man.

Addendum:   A next-day correction to my assertion above that the Kernwood Country Club took down the old Peabody residence.  I have been in their present clubhouse several times and could not imagine that it was the same building, but I have a nice note from the general manager of the club informing that indeed it is.  Apparently there was a fire in the 1950s which destroyed the gabled roof and upper stories, and so a flat roof was put on and later additions and reconfigurations were made, but the core of the clubhouse is in fact the building you see above.

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