Many Americans were struggling to survive the worst of times when Walker Evans first focused his lens on them. With the Great Depression dragging on in the 1930s, the FDR administration put photographers like Evans to work to document New Deal programs in action. But it was a detour mixed with a bit of insubordination that brought Evans to the Lehigh Valley in 1935.
"He was driving back to New York, and he decided to take the long way and came through the Lehigh Valley," explained Diane Fischer, chief curator at the Allentown Art Museum. "His assignment was to photograph Pittsburgh and the vicinity, but Evans defied orders and came here to the Lehigh Valley where he stayed for a month."
Some of the images that Evans captured during his visit are now on display at the museum as part of the exhibit entitled, "Walker Evans & The American Social Landscape Photographers." Among them are a streetscape stretched out in the shadow of Bethlehem Steel, Easton's Northampton Street Bridge, and a gravestone in St. Michael's cemetery. They're memories of yesterday reborn in black and white.
"The Lehigh Valley offers a very unique kind of terrain," said Fischer. "You have everything mixed together. It's like a collage of America."
The exhibit also features "re-photographs" of some of Evan's famous images, so visitors can see what those local landscapes look like now. In some cases, traces of the same Lehigh Valley that Evans discovered in his darkroom decades ago are still very much alive today.
Fischer pointed to a picture that shows an automobile graveyard on William Penn Highway, near Farmersville Road, in Bethlehem Twp., Northampton Co., as an example of the past blending with the present.
"It's still run as a junkyard," said Fischer, "but of course the models of the cars are different."
The exhibit also focuses on Walker Evans: the trendsetter.
"The other part of the exhibit has Evans intermixed with the other photographers and you can really see his influence in a lot of different ways," said Fischer.
The photographs will be on display in the museum's Rodale Gallery through January 13.