America in 3 by 5

Still, there was artifice. One of the cards Evans showed in Fortune and in his lectures is of Elkton Mines, in Cripple Creek, Colorado (Fig. 2). It depicts a hillside with a cluster of utilitarian buildings. The thing that makes it memorable is a building with a gable tinted a bright gold color. This vivid touch changes one’s view of the composition; you see the abstract forms hidden in the hasty, haphazard workaday construction. And it does remind us that we are looking at a gold mine. This may be a true picture, but it is hardly a neutral document.

One of Evans’s works in the show spotlights the issue of reality and artifice in postcard imagery. His 1935 photograph Main Street, from Across Railroad Tracks, Morgan City, Louisiana  (Fig. 6) is almost identical to a postcard copyrighted in 1929 in his collection (Fig. 5). Evans and the anonymous photographer of the postcard must have stood in precisely the same place, but the nameless shooter got there first. The only difference between the two images is that on the postcard the sky is tinted a brilliant blue with puffy clouds, and more significantly, all the utility poles and wires are missing.

Evans liked these seemingly intrusive and chaotic elements of the modernizing city. In 1948 he celebrated their visibility in cards he had collected: “These precisely are the downtown telegraph poles fretting the sky, looped and threaded from High Street to the depot and back again, humming of deaths and transactions.”5 “‘Downtown’ was a beautiful mess,” he wrote in 1962. “The tangle of telephone poles and wires attests to that.”6

It is likely that the poles and wires were removed from the Morgan City postcard for aesthetic reasons, but did Evans take his picture simply to get them back in? Many of the postcards in his collection have been cut down to remove borders and strengthen the composition; he clearly was not hesitant to improve the cards, though this would be an extreme example.

Rosenheim, for his part, is baffled. “Why did he go to Morgan City?” he muses. “Did he go because of the postcard? Where would you find a postcard of a town with 750 people in it?” And if he happened to be in Morgan City, found the postcard and decided to take exactly the same picture, it may well be the only time he did such a thing.

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[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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