Middle of Nowhere Productions

Middle of Nowhere Productions

Black Boy

BLACK BOY (Walker Evans)


The document is a black and white photograph. It represents a young black boy and his dog in a house. It is apparently an authentic, documentary photograph.

The boy must be about ten years old; he is standing motionless in a doorway, or rather just at the limit of a doorway, between two rooms of the house. The first thing which can be noticed about the boy and his environment is poverty. The boy is very shabbily dressed, with an old pair of torn overalls; he hasn't got any shoes on, and it is probably not for comfort. The rooms are very sparsely furnished: the first one, from which the photo was taken, contains only a chair, and the one in which the boy is standing has got only what seems to be an old chest of drawers, covered with a mess of clothes. The most remarkable thing about the house, which accounts most for the impression of extreme poverty, is the fact that the walls are papered with newspapers. The boy is not looking at anything in particular; his eyes are fixed on a point situated on the left of where the photographer must have been standing, yet, as the dog is looking in the same direction, one can assume that something must be drawing their attention towards that area. Whatever it is, it does not create any emotion or dramatic expression in the countenance of the subjects; the atmosphere of the photograph is very calm. As the boy looks quite comfortable in his light clothes, and as the light which bathes the foreground is quite bright, what is conveyed here is the atmosphere of a warm day, a Summer day, probably.

The photograph can be interpreted in terms of time and space, because there are clues which allow such an analysis. A quick glance at the newspapers which cover the walls reveals that the scene takes place in America, more particularly, top left and middle right, publicity for US savings bonds and an ad for Hudson cars. The car is useful to date the photograph: late thirties or early forties, and that is confirmed by the style of the clothes and hairdos of the people on the newspapers. The fact that the boy is barefoot and wears overalls can be used as a clue to determine the place where the photo was taken: most probably in a rural area, a hypothesis which is even more acceptable if we infer from the presence of the dog that is just has to be a rural area: first, it is a hound dog, and second, it is very unlikely for a poor black boy of that time to own a dog in an urban area, as it would be very difficult to keep and feed it. In the country, a dog is useful and it can go out and feed itself. Considering this and that, it is reasonable to assume that the scene takes place in a state of the deep South, either in Mississippi, Alabama or Tennessee. One may even go further in the identification of the document, as its subject, style and formal quality are characteristic of one of the great masters of American photography: Walker Evans. Walker Evans had been charged by the Franklin D. Roosevelt Administration to go on a mission in the Southern states with sociologist/writer James Agee to bring back information and testimonies, both written and photographic, about the state of despondency in which the poor people of those areas lived. We are more used to seeing Evans's photos about the misery of the Tennessee and Oklahoma white farmers; yet, quite a few deal with black people as well, and particularly with the interiors of black people's houses, which seemed to fit Evans's taste for simplicity and meaning. The document we are studying might very well be one of them, because of its formal perfection and the density of the message it conveys.

So it is a black & white photograph indeed, obviously, a photo of contrasts, the most striking of which is constituted by the difference between the newspaper-coated wall in the foreground, very light, with a lot of white areas, and the back room in the background, very dark and messy, in which the black boy is standing. Not only that wall is full of white, but it is full of Whites as well. All the people on the newspapers are white, but it is not the only contrast. The white wall seems to be standing for the American Dream, or an actual shop window of the American Dream, because a closer look at the newspaper sheets reveals that they are almost all advertisements. The contrast, which is originally formal, becomes sharper because it is enhanced by the contents. The poor people of the house have papered their wall just because the walls of a house have to be papered if you want to call it home, and they have unconsciously reiterated their dream of a real home by selecting things which they could not afford. They even managed to create a curtain effect by plaiting the newspapers just above the doorway.

They obviously cannot afford those things, which an even closer look reveals as luxury products: saving money in banks, having two cars, going to the theatre, buying tire chains to go to the mountains, owning luxury pens. The most dramatic of all is probably the one, top right, where a little girl says "hey kids, come see my new play rug", because it is more closely related to the child on the photograph and on the implicit fact that he hasn't got any toys.

There is a remarkable coherence in that photo between the medium and the message. Photography is the chemical exploitation of contrasts, and contrast is all over the photograph here. The borderline between the two different zones of the document (front and back) is not only formal, but topical as well. The front wall, almost white, and pathetic as it is an attempt by the dwellers of the house to recreate a proper home, symbolises the good face of America, the one it puts up as a front, with all its paraphernalia of consumer goods. The room at the back, not only back, but black, with its messy heaps of ragged clothes, depicts the reality behind the curtain of alleged prosperity. And the white wall is a curtain indeed, a theatrical staging of America. Although the photo has to be considered as authentic, the message and meaning are so striking that one could suspect it to have been made up; yet, we all know what the reality is, and how it often speaks better than fiction, with a dialectic power that cannot be imitated.

The little black boy is hesitating on the apron of the stage, right beyond the border between wealth and poverty. His eyes are pure and naive, and directed towards that light, towards the dream; but he does not wear the expression of a dreamer. he is just pathetic, poor and helpless, an allegory of social injustice, and his eyes tell that he knows the border cannot be trespassed. He is, in fact, expressionless, as if he did not really have any existence. Quite remarkably, at the place where one should read the artist's signature, a message sums up the purpose of the photographer, precisely: "Out to win… You can't afford to coa…" The message is diabolically ironical, as the boy is a born loser, and although the verb is incomplete, the etymology remains clear: what he can't afford is integration, unity, meeting the dream which they tell him is America.

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