How the Other Half Lives documents the lives of tenement dwellers on New York’s Lower East Side. Published in 1890 by the social reformer Jacob Riis, this book of photojournalism revealed to the city’s Gilded Age high rollers the desperate living conditions of New York City’s invisible population. Riis took his title from François Rabelais’s Pantagruel, where Pantagruel asserts: “one half of the world does not know how the other half lives” (“la moitié du monde ne sait pas comment l’autre vit”). With its shocking portrayal of destitution, How the Other Half Lives led to significant improvements in urban life over the following decade.
Pantagruel’s statement contains an implicit question. If we don’t know how the other half lives, how can we begin to imagine, and therefore empathize with, their lives? The same question is repeatedly asked these days in relation to the local and sustainable food movements, with the charges of elitism leveled against them. Can we, as Bob Dylan laments in “Positively 4th Street,” stand inside others’ shoes and see things as they really are? And if we do manage to do so, what is our responsibility? Should we, like Riis, act on our knowledge?
During the Great Depression the u.s. government created numerous programs to document the lives of regular folk in the midst of economic downturn. One of the most famous was “America Eats,” sponsored by the Federal Writers’ Project of the wpa. Another program, developed by the Farm Security Administration (FSA), hired nearly two-dozen photographers to canvas the country and capture the difficult lives of rural farmers. Walker Evans was one of these FSA photographers. In the summer of 1936 he collaborated with the writer James Agee on an article about cotton farmers in the American South. Although the article was never published, the material they gathered eventually became the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, published in 1941. For four weeks in July, Evans photographed three Alabama sharecropper families. One of these photographs is the gelatin silver print titled Kitchen Wall, Alabama Farmstead (1936).
This past March Gastronomica partnered with Orion magazine to explore Evans’s photograph at the Williams College Museum of Art, as part of the month-long Berkshire Women Writers Festival. We asked some wonderfully talented writers and poets—Ruth Reichl, Francine Prose, Elizabeth Graver, Patty Crane, and Ellen Doré Watson—to respond to Kitchen Wall with a public reading. (Their responses were so rich and varied that I plan to share them soon by posting them on Gastronomica’s new Web site.) The photograph itself has stayed with me. I keep trying to imagine the lives beyond the stark kitchen wall Evans presents.
The spareness of this photograph invests the everyday objects with significance; they hint at the lives of the inhabitants who use them, lives that remain essentially unknown to us. The placement of the objects creates a beautifully patterned composition. Though the crossbar for cutlery reveals that there is no money for a kitchen cabinet or even a cutlery drawer, the arrangement of the knives, forks, and spoons suggests a desire to keep things in their place. The shadows cast by the struts and the objects contribute to a linearly defined space, yet its angularities are softened by the round objects affixed to the wall: the water can, the Mason jar, the bowls of the spoons, the heat diffuser, the ring on the far left.
Evans and Agee have been criticized for invading the Alabama families’ lives, for putting them on display. Unlike some of Evans’s more famous images from the series, Kitchen Wall, Alabama Farmstead is devoid of human representation. It does not depict worn faces or scrawny limbs or expressions of despair. Instead it is a portrait of dignity in the face of deprivation: an attempt to find the right place for things, to create order in a life filled with disorder. There is an essentialness to this photograph that relies on objects rather than people to convey a story of lives lived hard at the edge.
Evans’s photograph gives us space to reflect, but, unlike Riis’s photos, it may not spur us to action. Instead it affords us an opportunity to consider once again that this sparse array of cooking and eating utensils is all that most people on the planet possess