Walker Evans, photographer

Photographs, paintings, graphic ephemera and objects.

Written by:
Emily S. Mendel
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Walker Evans (1903-1975), a quintessential 20th century U.S. photographer, is being celebrated at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) with a retrospective exhibition of over 400 photographs, paintings, graphic ephemera and objects from Walker’s personal collection, including 300 fascinating black and white vintage photographs. Curated and displayed first at the Pompidou Museum in Paris, SFMOMA is now the only venue for this important show.

Evans, from a wealthy mid-western family, started taking photographs in 1928. He was influenced by the French photographer Eugène Atget’s simple photographs of Paris at the turn of the 20th century, rather than the artistic school of photography. Evans’ first published photographs were three pictures (‘Brooklyn Bridge”) in the poetry book “The Bridge” by Hart Crane in 1930. The following year, he created a photo series of Victorian houses in the Boston area.

Most well-known for the 1941 book, “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” that he produced with writer James Agee about their 1936 stay among rural sharecropper families in Akron, Alabama, Evans is also renowned for his candid New York subway photographs. Beginning in 1938, Evans would hide his small camera in his coat and surreptitiously capture haunting portraits of unsuspecting New Yorkers. Many of the portraits were collected in a 1966 book, “Many are Called.”

Evans’ contributed photojournalism projects to numerous magazines and books, including “Fortune,” where he served as staff photographer for 20 years. There, he took and curated the pictures as well as composed the layout and wrote the articles’ texts. In 1965 he left “Fortune” to become a professor of photography and graphic design at Yale University. He remained there until 1974, a year before his death.

Walker Evans’ importance to the history of photography is his genius for documentary-style photography. He was fascinated by everyday Americans from subway riders to stevedores. Evans found beauty in the vernacular of everyday life, such as in the typography of signs, shop windows, roadside stands, postcards and billboards, which he displayed as paintings in his home and studio. His work influenced later photographers Helen Levitt and Diane Arbus, as well as conceptual artists and Pop Art painters Jasper Jones and Andy Warhol . . . and many others.

Although there have been museum shows of Evans’ work over the years, this one is the largest and most comprehensive, and includes Evans’ paintings, magazine pieces and his own collection of signs, postcards and other ephemera. Moreover, it is organized by theme, rather than by chronology. After a brief view of Evans’ early “artistic” photographs, the exhibit concentrates on Evans’ preoccupation with the vernacular. Juxtaposed to Evans’ photos of movie posters, billboards and street signs, are actual billboards, street signs and movie posters that Evans acquired (some, he simply stole). His posed and candid portraits are striking. For example, the short-order cook and the worker standing in front of a restaurant (1931) possess a surprising self-possession despite their shabby dress. The 1946 series, “Detroit Pedestrians” also seem to portray an American dignity.

Highlighting the show is a room containing two portraits of Allie Mae Burroughs, the sharecropper’s wife who graced “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.” It’s the sadder portrait that appears in the book. There is also a recording of her speaking about Evans and Agee, including the fact that some thought the two were “Soviet agents.”

The good and bad news about this show is that it is huge. It’s difficult to absorb so many images at one time, especially since the photographs are small and in black and white. It’s a good idea to take a break, have a coffee or lunch midway through the exhibit, in order to fully enjoy the second half of the show. It’s well worth seeing all that Walker Evans has to offer.

By Emily S. Mendel


©Emily S. Mendel 2017 All Rights Reserved.

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