Thursday, February 12, 2009

Walker Evans’ Postcards of Main Street

Walker Evans, the great American photographer, was an avid collector of postcards, and his collection is now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Of the 9,000 postcards in his collection, 700 are on display. As noted by Roberta Smith in the New York Times, "The show opens with a bank of postcards that offer plunging views down the middle of scores of American Main Streets, an almost scary tribute to the country’s can-do spirit, can-doing it again and again.” There are – David Chapin and I counted – 312 postcards of Main Street. This astounding display invited our study. David pointed out that most use one-point perspective that meets the horizon at one-fourth the way up the image. I noted the number of trolley tracks, and my reaction, like that of Smith, was a certain awe of the enthusiasm for urban development – and even inter-urban connection, David noted – among US citizens 100 years ago. It reminded me of the story of General Motors’ systematic attack on the trolleys which opened the way for the triumph of private cars. This kind of privatization of course continues apace, currently moving into private computers and personal phones. While Main Street represents a centripetal force pulling us together for social and economic exchange, our economy runs on incredible centrifugal forces. The result for our cities can be troublesome, as noted by Jane Jacobs: “Probably everyone is aware of certain dependencies by a city on its heart. When a city heart stagnates or disintegrates, a city as a social neighborhood of the whole begins to suffer. People who ought to get together, by means of central activities that are failing, fail to get together. Ideas and money that ought to meet, and do so often only by happenstance in a place of central vitality, fail to meet. The networks of city public life develop gaps they cannot afford. Without a strong and inclusive central heart, a city tends to become a collection of interests isolated from one another. It falters at producing something greater, socially, culturally and economically, than the sum of its separated parts.” (from The Death and Life of Great American Cities, p. 215)
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