Even if Walker Evans had taken no more photographs after his iconic portraits of Alabama sharecropper families (enshrined in James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men), he would still, and deservedly, hold an important place in American photography. Reminding viewers that he did go on to pursue many more projects is the mission of “Walker Evans: Depth of Field” at the High Museum of Art through early September, a career survey that aims to display his singular vision in capturing the America of a certain time and place.
Surprisingly, this is the first full retrospective of Evans’s work to be shown in the American South. Yet, within the first few images in the gallery, “Depth of Field” demonstrates that Evans was much more than a documentary photographer of merely regional significance. With startling precocity, at the of age twenty-three, Evans was photographing New York scenes with confidence, creating bold abstractions of buildings and bridges that were distinctly modernist in their anti-art approach. His work was picked up almost immediately by influential publications such as Lincoln Kirstein’s Hound & Horn and the 1930 modern art survey Die Sachlichkeit in der Modernen Kunst, and in 1933 he exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art. Within a few short years, Evans had secured a reputation as a modernist of the first rank and as an authentic practitioner of Neue Sachlichkeit (the “New Objectivity,” a style that rejected the perceived sentimentalism of Expressionism and focused instead on unadorned realism).
Born in St. Louis, Walker Evans III (1903–1975) had a comfortable upbringing, dropping out of Williams College after spending too much time in the library reading D. H. Lawrence and James Joyce. His father sent him to Paris in the 1920s with a Kodak vest-pocket camera, when no doubt the aspiring littérateur would have preferred letters of introduction to Hemingway and Gide. Evans fell into the life of a flâneur, nursing his ambitions and storing up impressions, rather guiltily, with the Kodak. Inhibited by shyness and a dawning realization that he would never be a great writer, he gradually overcame his disdain for the camera—and the contempt with which most artists then viewed the medium of photography—and embraced what had become a compulsion. He even encountered what would be for him an enduring motif: what he called, “the type in the street . . . a fellow on the waterfront, or a stenographer at lunch.”
Evans benefitted from associating in Paris and New York with artists and writers who, in spite of their avant-garde credentials, still maintained connections with those who came before. In particular, one can point to Evans’s friendship with Berenice Abbott, herself a remarkable photographer, who essentially rescued the French photographer Eugène Atget (1857–1927) from almost certain oblivion. Bringing back the Atget archives to New York, Abbott introduced Evans and Ansel Adams, among others, to the little-known artist whose pioneering work revealed the poetic potential of plain facts and a “lyrical understanding of the street,” in Evans’s words. In fact, the direct lyrical style of Atget and the German photographer August Sander (1876–1964) educated Evans’s eye and gave him the foundation for his own exploration of the New Objectivity, a style whose academic fussiness belied its aesthetically rich potential.
We see Evans pushing beyond the formidable influence of Atget in the mute interiors depicted in Apartment of Muriel Draper, New York (1931) and New York State Farm Interior (1931), the latter strongly prefiguring the sharecropper photographs. From Sander, whose lifelong project was a photographic record of the faces of the German people, Evans absorbed an interest in portraiture, a subject to which he returned repeatedly, at times capturing his subjects with their knowledge and cooperation, while at others taking their likenesses surreptitiously and deviously.
Across his early work, there is a recurring idea of “thingness,” seen especially in the African sculpture series made for an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art from 1934–35. Jerry L. Thompson’s catalogue essay points out that Evans approached the technical demands of the job with care, analyzing placement of lights and choosing the best equipment to obtain neutral but comprehensive results. The absence of hard shadows and the consistent attention to light and texture make these intimate images much more rewarding than, say, those shot by Charles Sheeler in 1916–1918 for Marius de Zayas’s Modern Gallery. Later in the 1950s, Evans would return to the idea of thingness with “Beauties of the Common Tool,” a Fortune commission, in which he isolated everyday tools on neutral backgrounds—“almost all the basic small tools stand, aesthetically speaking, for elegance, candor, and purity.”
Throughout his career, Evans had an eye for letterforms, whether as signs or advertising. He became genuinely excited by the exuberance of vernacular displays, especially when these displays incorporated texture (torn movie posters over brick walls), idiosyncratic evidence of the human hand (hand-lettered menus or lunch-wagon illustrations), or odd juxtapositions (a roadside stand offering fresh fish, house moving, and “honest weights and square dealings”). Evans was drawn to the graphical power of advertising not only as a call to action but also for the dark irony and hubris of man’s restless quest to label, codify, and categorize his environment. Evans himself, more than half-seriously, claimed to have “discovered” Pop Art through his sign photographs. Indeed, an exhibition-specific enlargement of his Roadside Gas Sign (1929) makes a convincing case for this assertion, clearly foreshadowing Pop artists such as Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg with their emphasis on surface and dislocation.
With his portrait projects—the Cuba images, the sharecropper families, the subway riders, the Detroit factory workers, and the portraits of friends—Evans moved away from the documentary formalism of his plein-air work toward a more personal and innocent style. Much has been written about the photographs for Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, images composed of equal parts technical brilliance, exquisite rawness, and almost unbearable presence; very little can be added here except to say that one would have wished to see more of them in this exhibition.
The subway portraits, caught with a hidden camera in the late 1930s, have always seemed somehow unsatisfying. Evans instinctually recognized the subway as the ideal environment for the un-posed portrait. It offered what he called “a sociological gold mine” where captive subjects may be studied at leisure, unselfconscious and removed from the “horrors of vanity.” While it is true that these photographs remind us that we are all members of the same tribe in spite of class or skin color, this rather uninspired truism deflates the qualities that so effectively animate Evans’s work overall, namely expansiveness and an openness to ambiguity. (It is worth noting that the subway portraits only appeared twenty-five years later in the 1966 exhibition and book Many Are Called. Might Evans, “the penitent spy,” have been hoping that the passage of time would soften the guilt he felt in exploiting the vulnerability of his subjects?)
Contrast this to the 1946 “Labor Anonymous” project for Fortune in which Evans photographed (again) unaware subjects: this time, workers leaving a Detroit factory. The cropping of the images and the forward momentum of the striding men and women, along with their relaxed, end-of-the-day body language is a much freer and freeing set of images. The influence of Paul Strand’s Wall Street, New York (1915) looms large here, but where Strand’s magisterial image flattens the workers to struggling shadows against an intransigent backdrop, Evans’s photographs affirm these workers as vibrant social beings.
Evans’s remarkable images from his 1933 trip to Cuba also owe a debt to Strand—whose Blind Woman (1916), Evans said, “bowled him over”—as well as to Atget’s street tableaux. Interestingly, one adjective that appears frequently in discussions of Evans’s work is “cool,” but the Cuba photographs are redolent of the steamy tropics and the noisy Havana streets, especially classics like Citizen in Downtown Havana, an elegant gentleman in white linen, the venerable Coal Loader, Havana, and the raffish Havana Dock Worker.
Although Evans avoided color photography for most of his career, considering it “vulgar,” near the end of his life he began experimenting with a Polaroid SX-70 instant color camera. It is amusing to imagine Evans, as the catalogue essayist John T. Hill describes him, wryly accepting Polaroid’s free film in exchange for the photographer’s tacit endorsement of their product. Evans made the most of the Polaroid’s limitations, crediting it with directing him toward photographing things he would not have considered before. The results—soft focus images with low saturation colors—have a gracelessness that surely must have troubled the fastidious Evans.
“Depth of Field” is accompanied by a handsome if maddeningly organized catalogue. Reproductions are uniformly fine and Evans’s own observations on his work complement the academic essays and reminiscences by friends. Fittingly, it is Evans’s own words that serve as the exhibition tagline and the catalogue subtitle: “Stare. It is the way to educate your eye, and more. Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long.”