In the fall of 1974, Walker Evans was both strong-willed and in ill health — a Moses-looking art-world elder who held nothing back in his opinions of the culture and himself.
In many critics’ eyes, Evans was America’s premier photographer. He thought so himself, more or less. He also thought that American culture and capitalism continued to produce massive inequality, just as it did in the Great Depression, when Evans did some of his best work. The most iconic images of the 1930s include some of Evans’, which he originally took for what became the Farm Security Administration and as part of a major freelance project.
“I look at those other photographs [taken by other photographers for the Farm Security Administration], and I see they haven’t got what I’ve got,” Evans told the scholar William R. Ferris, whose fall 1974 interview was one of Evans’ last extensive conversations on record before he died the following April. “I’m rather egotistical and conceited about that. I knew at that time who I was, in terms of the eye, and that I had a real eye, and other people were occasionally phony about it, or they really didn’t see. I know that’s immodest, but I have to say it.”
Ferris is a celebrated figure in his own right — an expert on Southern culture who went on to chair the National Endowment for the Humanities under Bill Clinton and who is now a professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. To Ferris, Evans will always remain a seminal figure in American photography. He exerted a widespread influence on the medium; among Evans’ proteges and admirers were Diane Arbus and Lee Friedlander. But he’s also esteemed for his work in the South, where Evans collaborated with the writer James Agee to produce the celebrated book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, and for his aesthetic, which involved seeing scenes through unique prisms and angles, and a recognition that the scenes were worth photographing. Old, empty houses became high art through Evans’ lens. So did street signage and “ordinary” people and their gatherings.
“Evans is at the top of the mountain with black-and-white photography. He’s unparalleled,” Ferris tells SF Weekly in a phone interview from North Carolina. “There are more and more photographers, including William Eggleston, who photograph the South, and all of them acknowledge Walker as their great mentor — the spirit they look to for inspiration. As many writers look to Faulkner as the great figure in Southern literature, Walker Evans is the great photographer who captured the rural South at a time when it was totally unknown.”
SFMOMA’s new exhibit, “Walker Evans,” explores Evans’ entire journey — including his early years of discovering his way of looking, his Great Depression photography from the South, his work in Cuba, his ongoing series of buildings and houses, his cataloguing of African art for New York’s Museum of Modern Art, his lifelong street photography, and his Polaroid images from the early 1970s. Rather than take a chronological approach to Evans’ career, the exhibit is organized thematically, and emphasizes what Clément Chéroux, SFMOMA’s senior curator of photography, calls Evans’ obsession with “America’s vernacular culture.”
Evans, whose father was an advertising executive, used his cameras to home in on street signs, movie posters, advertising materials, billboards, and other public work that was aimed at everyday people. He collected signs and ephemera of all kinds — and “Walker Evans” includes a gallery that’s like a virtual room from Evans’ house. Evans liked to take signs that he photographed or saw on the street, so the objects in this virtual room include an aluminum “No Dumping” sign from the 1930s (riddled with what appear to be bullet holes), a large metal Coca-Cola thermometer from the 1930s, and a 1930s movie poster that advertised a film called Sex Maniac (“The Truth About Love Fearlessly Told”). The objects face a gallery-sized photo of a room in Evans’ home in the 1970s where he hung some of those same objects.
Evans can be considered a kind of “proto Pop Artist” who presaged Andy Warhol and other 1960s-era art stars, Chéroux told SFMOMA Director Neal Benezra at the exhibit’s media preview. Warhol was very interested in Evans’ work, Chéroux said, pointing out how Evans was one of the first American photographers to publish his photos through magazines, and one of the first to do everything for publication — including design, layout, and writing. Evans, Chéroux said, “was ahead of his time.”
“Walker Evans” features some 300 vintage prints and 100 objects and documents, including paintings that Evans drew of street scenes. SFMOMA is the only U.S. museum to host the exhibit, which arrives from the Centre Pompidou in Paris, where Chéroux worked before coming to SFMOMA last year. Evans’ best-known photos may be the ones he took in 1936 of a tenant-farming family in Hale County, Ala. For three weeks, Evans and Agee lived with Floyd Burroughs, his wife Allie Mae, and their children. The Burroughs family was on welfare. They could barely afford food. They resided in a barebones house.
Evans’ image of Allie Mae Burroughs looking straight into his camera — poor, dignified, her mouth closed — is as stunning as any other image from the time period, including Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother shot of Florence Owens Thompson and her children. But where Lange stumbled onto Thompson and quickly took her image, Evans and Agee got to know the Burroughs family, paid to stay with them, and “paid them a stipend for letting us work with them,” Evans told Ferris. The “Walker Evans” exhibit features a 1975 audio interview with Allie Mae Burroughs, who says that Evans “was good to me,” and that his and Agee’s portrayal of the family “was true.”
The interview, in a gallery that has two versions of Evans’ photograph of the young matriarch — one version has her almost smiling — is a major highlight of “Walker Evans.” So is the gallery that has Evans’ “Labor Anonymous” work from 1946 in Detroit, where — against a bland, wooden street wall — he photographed random passersby for Fortune magazine. As the title indicates, these are anonymous people, but Evans tried to humanize them by giving them job titles, as shown in the 1946 telegram that he sent to his Fortune editors which is reproduced in the 2016 book Labor Anonymous. In it, he writes that “a city street will tell you as much in its way as your morning newspaper tells.”
The truth was out there, but Evans didn’t like it packaged and homogenized. He liked it raw. He liked it unvarnished and unpolished. He was repulsed by artifice. A storefront — its displays, its signage, its typefaces — was a window into a great universe of unfiltered patterns and connections. Garbage cans could be beautiful. The trash they contained could be arresting. Rusting cars in a junkyard said everything about the world. So did dirty workers and displaced people. To the day he died, Evans lived by this anti-artifice approach.
Ferris first met Evans at Yale University, where Ferris was teaching and where Evans had lectured and exhibited his work. Evans’ students loved him, and he loved them back. By the 1970s, his aesthetic was studied in colleges and universities, and his disciples had extended his aesthetic throughout the art world. In the 1930s, though, Evans had few other peers, and he worked almost in isolation as he pushed the boundaries of what photography could do. Evans used his instincts and his own vision to know that his work was “true.” In the fall of 1974, he told Ferris that he looked for photography — his own and others — to contain “originality and truth, and direct simplicity and honesty. I think I approach these things as a moralist, really. Because some of the things I just said — honesty and truth — are moral values. But beauty is something else. It’s a word that should be used damn carefully. I don’t know if I could tell you what beauty is. But that’s got to be there.”
The work in “Walker Evans” is beautiful and distinct — and, in person, Evans was a reflection of his photographs. “He had no tolerance for pretense,” says Ferris, who became Evans’ friend. “He was going against the grain [in his career]. It was not unlike our time, when there was great wealth and great poverty, and he and James Agee resented the inequity in a society of great affluence allowing families to live with barely enough to survive. … He had an aesthetic that was truly distinctive and uncompromising. You can really see his work as distinctive because of his eye.”
Gordon Parks — another photographer with a distinct vision, who also did work for the Farm Security Administration, and who also became one of America’s most notable photographers — is the focus of a new exhibit at BAMPFA called “Gordon Parks: The Making of an Argument,” which examines the behind-the-scenes editorial decisions that went into Parks’ 1948 photo essay in Life magazine.
Parks’ essay in the nation’s most influential photojournalism magazine profiled a young Harlem gang member named Leonard “Red” Jackson, and “The Making of an Argument” shows that the magazine’s editors played up the violence and mayhem of Jackson’s life while downplaying the more positive aspects of his doings with his family and his neighborhood. Parks wanted to present a more complete picture of Jackson’s life. Life disagreed. Using contact sheets and unpublished photos, “The Making of an Argument” is an eye-opening reassessment of the subtle ways in which the mainstream media have regularly repositioned reality to suit perceptions that conflict with complicated truths.
“Walker Evans,” through Feb. 4, 2018, at SFMOMA, 151 Third St. $19-$25; 415-357-4000 or sfmoma.org
“Gordon Parks: The Making of an Argument,” through Dec. 17, at BAMPFA, 2155 Center St., Berkeley. $10-$12; 510-642-0808 or bampfa.org