Week 2: Broadway
Gelatin silver print
26.9 x 23.3 cm
Lent by Elizabeth and Robert J. Fisher, MBA ’80. © Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Walker Evans’s “Broadway, 1930” represents the “Great White Way” in just the way many of us imagine it even today, as an overwhelming cacophony of signage, a dazzling and disorienting spectacle of light. In the midst of all this overstimulation, it’s easy to forget everything that this photograph isn’t showing us. The reality of everyday life at street level, the streets, the gutters, the people, any hint of that is completely drowned out by the glowing electric signs.
I think that this is especially crucial to point out because this picture was, in fact, created during the beginning of The Great Depression, less than a year after the devastating US stock market crash we know as Black Tuesday. As eternally and quintessentially “Broadway” as this image seems, the historical moment out of which it emerges was a time of profound and unsettling changes around the country, and the “Great White Way” was no exception. Specifically, since roughly 1927, live theater had been on the decline and, in its place, other less "legitimate" sorts of entertainment had begun to set up shop.
In his 1933 book The Night Club Era, New York City journalist Stanley Walker lamented the changing face of Broadway. “Once a street of comparatively modest tastes, of some show of decorum,” he wrote, “it has degenerated into something resembling the main drag of a frontier town,” about as glamourous as “a bargain basement counter,” with “peep shows for men only, flea circuses, lectures on what killed Rudolph Valentino, jitney ballrooms and a farrago of other attractions which would have sickened the heart of the Broadwayite of even ten years ago.”
Amongst those “other attractions” was the form of entertainment Evans’s features most prominently in this photograph: the movies. In addition to the sign for a movie theater, “Loew’s,” he includes multiple references to “The Big House,” a hardboiled prison drama which was one of the biggest films of that year. He also makes reference to “photoplays,” an old-fashioned term for motion pictures which provocatively draws our attention to the complex relationship between photography and the cinema.
What do you make of the signs in this photograph? Why would he feature “The Big House” so prominently? Is the manner in which these signs are layered on top of one another just as suggestive as their content?