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Archive Fever: Walker Evans

By Peggy Roalf   Wednesday November 1, 2017

Walker Evans (1903 -1975) is the subject of a major exhibition organized by Clément Chéroux for Centre Pompidou, Paris and currently on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where he is now senior curator of photography. Info

Throughout his 50-year career, first as an independent photographer, then as a contract photographer for the Farm Security Administration, later as art director and staff photographer for Fortune magazine, and last as chair of the photography program at Yale University School of Art and Architecture, Evans set out to look for America. Between 1928 and 1940, he found it in places like Pittsburgh and Boston, where he photographed Victorian houses; in Alabama and the Southern states, where he photographed tenant farmers and their families, plantation houses, country churches, workers, boy scouts, roadside signs, billboards, simple houses and their surroundings; in the subway and later on, in his own living room and backyard. His crisply detailed images captured the authenticity—and the impermanence—of what he observed, and prefigured the interest in consumer goods that followed with street photography and Pop Art.

Evans’s influence grew among those who followed, including Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, Diane Arbus, Stephen Shore, and Paul Graham. In 1971 he was given a retrospective exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, which traveled to seven museums across the country, further solidifying his place in history.

"Photography isn't a matter of taking pictures," Evans stated. "It's a matter of having an eye…. With a camera, it's all or nothing. You either get what you're after at once, or what you do has to be worthless. The essence” he continued, “is done very quietly with a flash of the mind, and with a machine.” He believed the camera allowed “an elevated expression, a literate, authoritative and transcendent statement,” and described the images he made as being “in the documentary style.”


So reticent as to be nearly isolating, his mostly black-and-white photographs, while representational, were beyond narrative in the sense that each one captured an essential truth about the place and time of its subject. Today, anyone interested in photography is aware of Evans’s contribution, but a few lines by curator John Szarkowski from the catalogue of the 1971 exhibition at MoMA offers a sense of how unusual this actually was. Szarkowski wrote, "At a time when faster lenses and films and shutters allowed photographers to record ever-thinner slices of life, Evans' pictures were as still as sculpture. While the new miniature cameras were spawning an unending stream of bird's-eye and worm's-eye views, Evans worked insistently from a human's-eye level. While artificial lighting equipment grewcontinually more sophisticated and seductively ingenious, Evans preferred the light that the sun, or chance, provided. While the new picture magazines rewarded photographers who recorded the exotic, the charming, the topical, the glamorous and the shocking, Evans interpreted what was ubiquitous and typical."


In 1973, Evans began working with the Polaroid SX-70 camera and was given an unlimited supply of film from the manufacturer. By this time, Evans, at age seventy, was somewhat infirm. The simplicity of the instant prints suited his search for a precise yet poetic vision of the world around him, in small form. With the new camera, Evans returned to some of his key motifs, such as signs, posters, and their key component, the letter itself.

"Nobody should touch a Polaroid until he's over sixty," Evans once said. Of the nearly 2,500 Polaroids Evans made, 300 were exhibited and published by The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2000. Info The museum acquired the Walker Evan archive in 1994, and made it available to the public in 2000. Info

For this post, I randomly selected from the archive some of the Polaroids Evans made around his home in Old Lyme, Connecticut between 1973-74.

Row 1, l-r:[Abandoned House] Date: 1973–74; Medium: Instant color print;[Jerry Thompson on Walker Evans's Couch]  November 10, 1973; Medium: Instant color print. [Lampshade] Date: December 29, 1973; Medium: Instant color print.

Row 2, l-r: [Cactus] Date: 1973–74Medium: Instant color print; [Toilet] Date: 1973–74; Medium: Instant color print; [Cemetery] Date: 1973–74; Medium: Instant color print

Row 3, l-r: [Detail of Walker Evans's Studio Facade, Old Lyme, Connecticut] Date: November 1973; Medium: Instant color print; [Armchair] Date: 1973–74; Medium: Instant color print; [Cactus] Date: 1973–74; Medium: Instant color print. All images from The Metropolitan Museum of Art Walker Evans Archive Info


Also Note: 
Great Journeys | The Magnum Square Print Sale in Partnership with Aperture continues online through November 3.Over 100 6x6in. signed prints by some of the greatest historical and contemporary photographers such as Martin Parr, Joel Meyerowitz, Alex Soth, Cristina de Middel, Todd Hido and many others, will be available for $100 for one week, on shop.magnumphotos.com

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