Walker Evans is arguably the greatest photographer America has ever produced. His deceptively simple black-and-white images of poverty, weary Southern sharecroppers, and deserted towns shaped our perception of the Depression, ushered in an era of unadorned documentary photojournalism, and influenced artists from Diane Arbus to Ben Shahn, Robert Frank to Andy Warhol. SFMOMA's "Walker Evans" exhibition was organized by New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, and is the first comprehensive retrospective to include prints from every period of Evans' work -- from the late 1920s through the early 1970s. It consists of 175 photographs plus the artist's negatives, papers, books, diaries, and 50 color photos shot with an SX-70 Polaroid camera.
Evans is best known for his landmark collaboration with James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men-- the project, which started out as an article for Fortune magazine (where Evans became photo editor), was published in book form in 1941 -- and the pictures he took as part of an American odyssey that began in the mid-1930s, when he was hired by the Farm Security Administration. Although Evans is often misread as a social reform photographer, he remained defiantly apolitical throughout his career.
Evans, who displayed the rare combination of exceptional talent and impeccable timing, arrived on the scene just when the camera was making its ascension. His work, exquisitely framed and startling in its simplicity and beauty, was revolutionary. He introduced chance to photography; eschewing the "traditional tactics of art" in favor of unpremeditated, unstaged pictures of people and places as they were. He liked to refer to himself as "a penitent spy and apologetic voyeur." The auto graveyards, road signs, and care-worn faces that peer into the lens without vanity were subjects that had not been considered worthy of art until Evans made them eloquent. There are no senators or bank presidents on view here. These images are, as he once said, "The ladies and gentlemen of the jury."
"Walker Evans" opens Friday, June 2, and continues through Sept. 12 at SFMOMA, 151 Third St. (at Mission), S.F. Admission is free-$9; call 357-4000 or go to www.sfmoma.org.