Walker Evans at SFMOMA

Another feature on the BJP site that caught my eye recently was Walker Evans’ love of the vernacular at SFMOMA’s enormous retrospective by Diane Smyth. The SFMOMA show, Walker Evans, opened on September 30 and continues to February 4, 2018, and was organized by the Centre Pompidou, Paris, in collaboration with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Smyth’s feature is well-illustrated and contains extensive quotes from a phone interview with curator Clément Chéroux, and is rather more informative the the SFMOMA site, which does however have some excellent links if you scroll down the page.

Walker Evans and in particular his 1938 book ‘American Photographs‘ appealed to me greatly when I first came across it as a relatively new photographer, so much so that I followed his example in writing myself a script for my own colour work similar to one of his which I carried in my wallet for years (it may still be there), and I probably spent far too long telling my students about it when I taught a photography history module. In 1999 I tidied up my notes into a short essay for publication, and, with a few very minor changes here it is now:

Walker Evans, American Photographer

Like many newspapers, the Guardian (once the Manchester Guardian – arguably the best of the UK’s serious dailies) is currently busy reviewing the century. Earlier this month the weekly feature was devoted to photography, giving a reasonable if understandably brief and fragmentary overview of the first thirty or so years of the century before jumping erratically to TV, Warhol and computer manipulation. Somewhere along the line the author’s argument had missed some vital links, enabling her to disregard much of the photography of the second half of this century. One of the key pieces missing in her jigsaw was undoubtedly Walker Evans.

Evans seems generally to present a problem to writers on photography in the UK particularly and often elsewhere, largely because he is known almost exclusively for a small selection of his work for the FSA and the book co-produced with writer James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Of course the simple and powerful portraits of Alabama sharecroppers and their living spaces in this is certainly a compelling body of work, but it far from exhausts the contributions Evans made to photography. Restricting one’s vision in this way allows his work to be dismissed as a simple extension of the socially committed photography of Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine, similar in nature if distinguished in content to much of the photojournalism of the time.

To get a deeper understanding we need to examine where Evans came from. His background was a literary one, and he only drifted into photography after an unsuccessful attempt to become a writer. His friends included a number of leading figures on the American literary scene, including poet Hart Crane and critic Lincoln Kirstein. Evans was certainly aware of the work of other photographers of the time – including those artist-photographers such as Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand and Edward Weston, but he found little to interest him in it, although he did acknowledge the contribution of Stieglitz to the development of photography in America. What attracted him more than these artistic photographers were the often anonymous records of small-town America, postcards, portraits and old photographs that recorded scenes and events unselfconsciously – the ‘vernacular’ tradition in photography.

Evans combined this straightforward and often frontal approach to the medium with a sophisticated analysis of the content of images, their relationships with other pictures and their cultural context which derived from literary models. Essentially he was a photographer of ideas. In preparation for taking photographs he wrote lists or ideas and themes that interested him – sometimes in very general terms, but at other times going into specific details. He was also generally a careful recorder of scenes as he found them, scrupulous in not altering the details, photographing what he found to make a good photograph; unlike some other photographers he did not arrange or construct to heighten the effect.

Evans’s great work – one of the volumes that every photographer should own – was ‘American Photographs‘*. This book was carefully designed in every way from the typeface and its bible-cloth binding to the layout and particularly the sequencing of its images. First published – and panned by most critics in 1938 – it has been made available in various editions over the years since then.

The first plate of American Photographs shows the ‘Licence Photo Studio’ on a street corner in New York in 1934. Much of its curious two storeys are covered with boards and adverts promising ‘Photos in 5 minutes’, as well as its sidelines of auto licence applications, driving school, licence plates and Notary Public, and a hanging sign repeats the message. Two large painted hands direct us from either side of a dark open doorway direct to dimly visible stairs leading up; another set of steps runs diagonally from the bottom left on the front of the structure leading to a door on the upper floor almost immediately above the first. On either side of one of the hands is graffitied Mae West’s ‘Come up and see me some time’.

Obviously the picture is an invitation to go in further to the book and to look at its photographs, but it is more than that. With this picture Evans announces some of the major themes of the book; clearly it is dealing with the vernacular, it is about how things are represented in photographs, about the car and it is about choices and putting things on public record.

Turning the page we find a ‘Penny Picture Display’ from a photographer’s studio door in Savannah, the word ‘Studio’ superimposed on a grid of some 70 examples of the photographers work. This is the American people, or, more precisely, a representation of them through vernacular photography. The next picture shows actual people, two workers on the street in Pennsylvania, behind them an out of focus crowd. Standing together the gaze past each other in opposite directions. Plate 4 is another window, with flowers and a drawn portrait of a politician framed in one of its panes.

Next is the amazing ‘French Opera Barber Shop’ in New Orleans, with crazy stripes on its frontage, post on the pavement in front of the door and lamp echoed in the striped jumper of the woman standing in its entrance. The anarchic stripes contrast with the ornate formal ironwork of the balcony at top of picture, and the woman in the doorway contrast with the idealised face in the advert in the neighbouring drug store. Here also, as in the first picture, we have some problems with space, the differing angles of the stripes on the almost flat frontage tending to make us misread it in perspective, and the square barber pole on the pavement moving visually into the same plane as the other similarly striped surface, creating a kind of tension that enlivens the picture.

The remaining 45 pictures in Part 1 of the book continue the story, and you will find them worth study. They do include many of his best-known images, including some of the Alabama sharecroppers, but they are here set in the context intended by their author. As Lincoln Kirstein wrote in his lengthy essay in the original publication ‘Looked at in sequence they are overwhelming in their exhaustiveness of detail, their poetry of contrast, and, for those who wish to see it, their moral implication. Walker Evans is giving us the contemporary civilisation of eastern America and its dependencies as Atget gave us Paris before the war and Brady gave us the War between the States.’

Of course there is more to Evans than this one book – he continued working for many years, extending the ideas here and also working in new areas, including the series of subway portraits taken in the 1940’s with a concealed 35mm camera and only published some 20 years later. There are also many fine pictures from his early work for which there was not space in the book or which would not have contributed to its sequence – you can view over 1200 from the FSA work alone on the Library of Congress site, some at high enough resolution to enable you to make better prints than his if you would like a Walker Evans on your wall. American Photographs, however, provides an unparalleled insight into the way that Evans saw his own work, and it represented a considerable enlargement of the complexity and possibilities available to the photographer, one that many later photographers – notably Robert Frank and Lee Friedlander – were to pick up and exploit.

*’American Photographs’ has been since published in various editions, and you can download a good preview PDF of the best of the republications, the 75th anniversary version, on the MoMA site. You can also watch the pages of the first edition being turned on Vimeo. While you can pay anything from £1500 up for the first edition, the 75th anniversary publication is still available for well under half the cost of the exhibition catalogue, and should be on every phtoographer’s book shelf.

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