Walker Evans’ America
Despite his almost sole focus on the American experience, a major retrospective of photographer Walker Evans’ work at the Centre Pompidou in Paris represents, in a strange way, a kind of homecoming for the trailblazing documentary photographer.
That’s partly because of the lingering influence of a trip Evans took to France in 1926–1927 to immerse himself in French literature and culture. In later years, the photographer “named Baudelaire and Flaubert as two of the greatest influences of his life,” said exhibition curator Clément Chéroux in an interview with NGC Magazine. “Baudelaire for his subject matter and Flaubert for his method.” Always a voracious reader, Evans sought to bring a literary structure to his work as a photographer.
But the most direct French influence emerged only after Evans had returned to New York City, when he discovered photographer Eugéne Atget. “Evans aimed to do with America what Atget did with Paris,” says Chéroux. “As Atget photographed the Parisian vernacular, Evans photographed the American vernacular.”
Evans’ five-decade commitment to this “vernacular” approach — that is, his concern with capturing objects and moments from everyday life — is amply documented in the exhibition, now on view at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. The exhibition features over 300 photographs — including 20 images on loan from the National Gallery of Canada, which acquired close to 400 Evans prints after his death in 1975 — and traces Evans’ evolution from the late 1920s through the early 1970s.
Evans’ professional career began in earnest when he was commissioned by the Farm Security Administration (FSA), a branch of the U.S. government, to capture the bleak lives of sharecroppers and the rural poor in Depression-era America. Although the immediate purpose of this exercise was political — to cultivate support for President Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal” social welfare programs — Evans always brought his independent vision to the task, creating work that remains striking to this day.
Chéroux points to one particular photo from this period — Family Snapshots in Frank Tengle’s Home, Hale County Alabama (1936) — as an especially poignant contribution from the NGC collection. It appears in the celebrated book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a collaboration between Evans and author James Agee, in which the photo accompanies an Agee essay on three sharecropper families. The contrast of the family portraits with the rough surroundings speaks to the humanity of people caught in dire circumstances.
Later, while working as Fortune magazine staff photographer (and simultaneously attracting attention from art institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art), Evans became less overtly political and more focused on capturing the details of America’s passing scene: billboards, signage, advertisements, buildings, and other commonplace ephemera. He also shot street scenes and clandestinely photographed New York City subway riders, often lost in thought, using a camera hidden in his coat. In the final phase of his work, during the 1970s, Evans brought a new technology — the Polaroid SX-70 — to the pursuit of this same subject matter.
For Ann Thomas, NGC Curator of Photographs, who oversaw the Evans loan, the cumulative portrait of America that emerges from Evans’ post-FSA work seems to parallel that of Jack Kerouac’s Beatnik odyssey, On the Road. While Evans collected images of old Victorian Boston mansions and southern antebellum architecture — emblems of a land-bound old order that was quickly fading — he also gave witness to the emergence of a new, restless culture that was constantly on the move.
“For me, Evans anticipates that impression of America,” said Thomas in an interview with NGC Magazine. “Gas was important. Cars were important. Railroads were important. The subways were full. There was a lot of hustle and bustle. People were always going places. And it was a deeply commercial place. There was the signage, the billboards, products being advertised, things being manufactured, money being made. That’s America.”
Evans deeply influenced future generations of photographers, says Thomas, in the way that “he gave them licence to look at ordinary, everyday, unremarkable things and to find their significance. He gave people licence to work in ways that didn’t conform to the existing ideas about what was an appropriate subject for art.”
Beyond that, he was also a disciplined artist who was important for “the formal language of photography that he used,” says Thomas. “His visual vocabulary would influence the way in which a younger generation of photographers would see the subject matter and how they would compose their pictures as well. In Evans’ architectural photos, for example, you sometimes see two images of the same object, and in one he has repositioned the camera ever so slightly. So, there’s a certain inflection he searches after in his photographs.”
This careful construction of Evans’ images, she adds, also speaks to his view of photography as a literary medium. “He had a particular way of parsing images. He was a very literate man, and to me, he was ‘writing images.’”
Walker Evans is on view until August 14, 2017 at the Centre national d’art et de culture Georges Pompidou in Paris. The exhibition will then travel to the Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, where it will be presented from September 30, 2017 to February 4, 2018. For aficionados of great photography visiting Ottawa this spring and summer, you won’t want to miss the NGC exhibitions Photography in Canada, 1960–2000, on view until September 17, 2017, and PhotoLab 2: Women Speaking Art, on view until September 10, 2017.