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Roslyn Bernstein: Walker Evans’s American Photographs

August 28, 2013

At the Museum of Modern Art, Evans’s iconic photographs are seen in a new, fuller context.


All images by Walker Evans, courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art.

By Roslyn Bernstein

A close-cropped view of an old-fashioned barber shop—two swivel chairs, white striped towels hanging on each arm, shaped glass bottles filled with strange liquids on a shelf, a smudged oval mirror, a speckled, plastered wall, newspaper clippings—this is “Negro Barber Shop Interior,” 1936, preserved by photographer Walker Evans, whose sharp vision captured the moment forever.

Born into an affluent family in St. Louis, Missouri in 1903, Evans graduated from Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts and studied French literature at Williams College; he dropped out after only one year to spend 1926 in Paris, where he became enamored of Eugene Atget’s intimate photographs of Paris and Parisians. Upon his return, Evans was drawn into a lively literary and artistic circle in New York City that included John Cheever, Hart Crane, and Lincoln Kirstein. After working for two years as a stock broker Wall Street firm, he turned to photography in 1928 (good timing). During the Depression Evans worked for the Resettlement Administration (RA) in West Virginia and Pennsylvania and the Farm Security Administration (FSA), mainly in the Southern United States.

From 1945 on, for two decades, Evans worked as an editor for Fortune magazine, producing a series of original portfolios and photo-essays that included: “Chicago,” “On The Waterfront,” “American Masonry,” “Beauties of the Common Tool,” “A Beautiful Factory Vanishes,” and “People and Places in Trouble.” Evans’ earliest appearance in Fortune was in 1934 when he published “The Communist Party.” The landmark book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: The American Classic, in Words and Photographs, of Three Tenant Families in the Deep South, part ethnography, part narrative exploration of the lives of poor white sharecropper families, began as an assignment for Fortune with writer James Agee.

In an oral history interview with the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, Roy Emerson Stryker, who headed the Information Division of the FSA and was responsible for launching their documentary photography program, said that Evans produced “remarkable series. Still showing the same old competence, still showing his discerning eye. A series he did on the railroads, on the locomotives, in which he shot the close-ups of the drive mechanism; the beautiful sequence he did on the old….You’ll see that Walker Evans is still, in his way, continuing his 8×10 camera perception, if I may use that strange phrase, of the world about him.”

That perception of the world about him is very much evident in the current Walker Evans exhibit at MoMA, “American Photographs” (July 19th through January 26th), celebrating the 75th anniversary of Evans’ first solo photography show there in 1938 and the reissue of the iconic book, American Photographs: Seventy-Fifth Anniversary Edition. It is the eighth Walker Evans exhibit at the museum. Although the 1938 exhibit was called Evans’s first show, it was actually his second one-person show, following a 1933 architectural exhibit there of his photographs of Victorian houses. Since the 1930s, MoMA has followed Evans’s career with exhibits in 1962, 1964 (subway photos), and, under the direction of MoMA’s Chief Curator of Photography John Szarkowski, a full retrospective in 1971, and a 50th anniversary exhibit, hung in one of the photography galleries, in 1988.

His legacy is one of clean, clear images—inspiration to the artists of the American avantgarde.

Rather than “slavishly recreate what an important artist had already done,” the exhibit organizer, Sarah Hermanson Meister, Curator in the Department of Photography, with Drew Sawyer, a Curatorial Fellow, made several bold decisions aimed at evoking Evans’s spirit for a contemporary audience: the first was to look for space outside of the photography gallery. Meister approached Ann Temkin, Chief Curator of Painting and Sculpture, and they looked at several spaces, including a room next to the European Surrealist galleries. Ultimately, Meister chose Gallery 18 on the museum’s fourth floor, replacing works by Franz Kline, Cy Twombly, and Agnes Martin, with 56 images, almost all contact prints, drawn from the Museum’s collection of hundreds of Evans’s photos. “Walker Evans was interested in American vernacular culture and in images of American vernacular culture,” Meister said; this influenced her decision to locate the show next to galleries filled with works by American artists including Rauschenberg, Johns, Warhol and Pollock.

Meister points to one of Warhol’s paintings of Marilyn Monroe, visible in the adjacent Gallery 19 and then to Evans’ “Houses and Billboards in Atlanta” (1936), where film legend Carole Lombard’s face appears on a billboard for the romantic comedy Love Before Breakfast. “No matter what you know about art—let’s say you have just been through two or three galleries—you will be struck by a gallery full of photos,” she said. “Even a lay person with no understanding of photography will pick up sufficient signals. The idea here is to capture Evans’s legacy, placing it in context.” His legacy is one of clean, clear images—inspiration to the artists of the American avant-garde.

While Meister preserved several important components of the 1938 show: a few large photos mounted directly on the wall and two instances of three images hung in a vertical row—a technique that Walker Evans himself used—there is not a one-to-one relation between the exhibit and the book. In 1938, the book had 87 photographs organized into two sections, the first with 50 images and the second with 37 images while the exhibit had 100 images. In the current 56-image show, there are only two suites of prints that are the same as those in the book, Part One: “Joe’s Auto Graveyard, Pennsylvania,” 1936; “Roadside Gas Sign,” 1929; “Lunch Wagon Detail, New York,” 1931; and “Parked Car, Small Town Main Street,” 1932 ; and Part Two: “Connecticut Frame House,” 1933; “Millworkers’ Houses in Willimantic, Connecticut,” 1931; “Frame Houses in Virginia,” 1936; and “Frame Houses in Virginia,” 1936.

Meister chose to have all of the photo captions printed on a separate card rather than including them as wall text, echoing Evans’ decision in the book to print the titles at the back of each section, after the images. “I love the idea that somebody can look at these pictures and just look,” Meister said. Without a title, we see a photo of a chic black woman, not knowing that the setting is “42nd Street” and, only after turning to the title card, do we realize that an elegantly dressed man in a white suit and a straw hat is a “Citizen in Downtown Havana”, 1932.

“the single face, the single house, the single street, strikes with the terrible cumulative force of thousands of faces, houses and streets.”

“When working with photos, you are working with real objects,” Meister said. The first challenge was to select the very best photos and to determine how they related to each other. “Evans looks through the kaleidoscope of a local lens,” she said, explaining why she decided to make a grouping of four images, two displaying wooden rickrack trim on buildings in Ossining, N.Y. and in Maine, and two featuring wrought iron decoration on buildings in New Orleans and in the French Quarter.

Although there are no photo captions adjacent to the images, wall text does strengthen the show in two places. The first quotes from a list that Evans made in preparing the 1938 exhibit: “Show Ideas: small defined sections, people, faces, architecture, repetition, small pictures, large pictures.” Evans experimented with print size and groupings, made possible by the development of new technologies for enlargement in the 1930s.

A second wall text passage describes Evans’s work for the Resettlement Administration (RA). “He made his highly composed images of architecture and interiors with a cumbersome large-format camera, but a Leica was his concealed weapon of choice when photographing people on the street. Evans no doubt appreciated the 35mm film camera for its small size and speed, which allowed him to inconspicuously capture his subjects on the go.”

The sun-bleached boards of wooden frame houses, an unmade bed seen through a bedroom door, specials of the day posted on a roadside fish stand, the metal rimmed glasses and perfect moustache of the American Legionnaire.

Meister includes Lincoln Kirstein’s essay on Walker Evans’ “Photographs of Victorian Architecture,” printed in a 1933 MoMA Bulletin, in a vitrine in the exhibit. There, Kirstein wrote that “Evans’ photographs are such perfect documents that their excellence is not assertive.” Five years later, in the 1938 catalogue essay Kirstein praised Evans’s work for its “purity, or even its Puritanism.” Indeed, to him, the power of Evans’ work “lies in the fact that he so details the effect of circumstances on familiar specimens that the single face, the single house, the single street, strikes with the terrible cumulative force of thousands of faces, houses and streets.”

In the end, then, it is the cumulative weight of Evans’ photographic portfolio that is his legacy: The sun-bleached boards of wooden frame houses, an unmade bed seen through a bedroom door, specials of the day posted on a roadside fish stand, the metal rimmed glasses and perfect moustache of the American Legionnaire.

The spare, taut image of the woman (Allie Mae Burroughs) in “Alabama Cotton Tenant Farmer Wife” (1936), her dark hair parted severely, her thin lips pursed together, her plain, print cotton dress, her eyes staring straight ahead. Somehow, we sense, that she is looking beyond Evans’ camera. Her thoughts are on the day’s chores, on the hardship of her life.

Current Exhibit: Walker Evans, “American Photographs,” MoMA, July 19, 2013—January 26, 2014.

Upcoming Exhibit: “American Modern: Hopper to O’Keeffe,” August 17, 2013—January 26, 2014.

Public Event: Sing Along inspired by Walker Evans and works in “American Modern,” with Garrison Keillor and a number of musicians, MoMA, December 5, 2013.

Walker Evans, American Photographs, Seventy-Fifth Anniversary Edition, with an essay by Lincoln Kirstein, The Museum of Modern Art, 2012.

Roslyn Bernstein reports on arts and culture for such online publications as Buzzine, Huffington Post, and Guernica. Bernstein is a professor of journalism at Baruch College, CUNY and the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. She is the author of Boardwalk Stories and the co-author of Illegal Living: 80 Wooster Street and the Evolution of SoHo.

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