It’s been more than a decade since the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art opened a massive exhibition of the work of American photographer Walker Evans. It was a terrific, career-defining show, mounted at the right moment to transform Evans from Depression Era photographer to one of our seminal artists. Originally mounted by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which had acquired Evans’ personal archive in the ‘90s, it seemed a show no one else would ever duplicate for breadth and quality.
Until now. With the opening this month of Walker Evans at the Cantor Arts Center on the Stanford University campus, the full range of Evans’ influential and elegantly understated work is on view through April 8.
Like its predecessor, the Cantor show is curated by Met Curator of Photographs Jeff Rosenheim. But this time the photographs are drawn entirely from the collection of Elizabeth and Robert J. Fisher, a Stanford business school graduate and the son of the recently deceased GAP founder Don Fisher, who was arguably San Francisco’s premier collector of modern and contemporary art. (It’s his collection that SFMOMA is now building a new wing to house.)
It’s clear the son and daughter-in-law have cultivated the knack. The Cantor show is a précis of SFMOMA’s, with fewer images, but they are all smartly selected vintage prints from every part of Evans’ career. It’s a career that was far more varied than the Depression-era photographs that he made for the federal Farm Security Administration for which he is best known. What makes this show so engaging is to see it in the context of the contemporary art world. For one who once considered himself a ”failed artist,” Evans’ embrace of commercial and vernacular American culture, and later abandonment of some control of the photographic image, anticipated Pop and Conceptual art and much more. You might even say that the embrace of the road as a transformative American experience had its roots in Evans.
Within the world of photography, whose full admission to the art world did not really come until near the end of his career, Evans was known as a pivotal figure in the development of documentary photography as an art form. It’s hard to imagine the work of street photographers Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander and Gary Winogrand — all of whom Evans knew and helped — without the example of his seemingly artless and direct approach.
Evans was born in St. Louis, the son of a wealthy advertising executive, and raised in the Chicago suburbs and Toledo, Ohio. He drifted through two private boys’ schools and dropped out of Williams College after one year to move to Paris, where he hoped to emulate the writers he idolized — Flaubert, Joyce, Eliot and Hemingway. It soon became clear that his idolatry of the great writers would prevent him from ever becoming one. But when he picked up a camera, an avocation since his youth, it was different matter. The shy and self-conscious Evans felt an ease and spontaneity he never knew when writing. With the encouragement of writer Hart Crane and other friends, he quickly became obsessed with the medium’s potential.
The first room of the Cantor retrospective, which is chronologically organized, shows a naturally gifted photographer experimenting his way toward his own style. There are a few tiny self-portraits that he took while still in Paris, and they echo European modernism, with its evident formalism and emphasis on odd angles and dynamic structure. But Evans quickly found his footing in what might be called a style of no style. Not surprisingly for the prickly and iconoclastic Evans, he was quick to define himself in opposition to the leading photographers of the day: Alfred Steiglitz, whom he saw as pretentiously arty, and Edward Steichen, whom he dismissed as commercial. What he embraced was seemingly unmediated realism that focused on ordinary objects, commercial and urban imagery, often shot from a simple, symmetrical frontal view that belied the artistry that lay behind it.
His fascination with commercial signage, which would continue to the end of his career, already is evident in the 1930 “Truck and Sign,” a slightly surreal image of workmen unloading an enormous sign that consisted simply of the word, “Damaged,” an image that foreshadowed work Ed Ruscha would create decades later.
The second room of the show has the only body of work in which the Fisher collection doesn’t equal the best of Evans’ work seen in the SFMOMA show. In 1933 a publisher invited Evans to join leftist writer Carleton Beals on trip to Cuba to make pictures for a book Beals was writing entitled, “The Crime of Cuba,” critiquing the régime of dictator Gerado Machao y Morales. Typically, Evans never read the text. His photographs reflect little of the nature of the dictatorship, but are some of the most powerful and accomplished portraits of his career. The Fisher collection has exactly one of those unforgettable images, “Citizen in Downtown Havana, 1933.” The rest are decidedly second-tier. Others, of a candy vendor, workers on the Havana coal dock, and more are absent. In a career that did not contain many strong portraits, this is a significant omission.
The rest of the room features a generous sampling of the imagery for which Evans is best known: the Depression era Farm Security Administration images of the poor and displaced, and, more centrally, the cityscapes, buildings and interiors they inhabited. It’s been said that Evans had an uncanny ability to see the present as if it were already the past, and it’s true. He unerringly photographed things that were idiosyncratic to the time and fast fading from view. Evans was largely apolitical and that apparent neutrality has allowed virtually all of this work to withstand the vicissitudes of time, while the work of his peers now feels sentimental.
The photographer’s engagement with southern poverty reached its most brilliant apogee the following decade in his collaboration with the writer James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. The portfolio of photographs of three tenant-farm families that accompany Agee’s obsessively detailed text was originally commissioned by Fortune magazine but rejected there. The portraits are as intimate and intense as they are dispassionate, preserving their subject’s dignity while searing the viewer with the facts of their lives. It’s interesting to note that Evans photographs, which convey an enormous dignity in the face of privation, seem to undermine Agee’s lyrical arguments about the debasement of poverty.
At least two bodies of work in the show, it must be said, are of interest primarily to offer a full rendering of Evan’s life rather than for their visual rewards. The first is a series of photographs of African carving commissioned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The second he did during his years as a staffer for Fortune Magazine, which are wisely represented here by the original magazine spreads rather than the original photographs. Both, finally, are unremarkable. It’s as though he was plying his day job while awaiting further inspiration.
It came in two other bodies of work. The first, a series of candid photographs taken on the New York City subway, was later gathered in a book entitled, “Many Are Called.” Evans secreted a camera inside his coat and made portraits of his fellow riders without looking through the viewfinder. Made in the 1940s, the photographs seem to capture a different collective consciousness of his countrymen and women from the Depression years. Instead of determination and grit, here the people seem lost in ennui and existential musing.
The other came near the end of Evans’ life in the 1970s, when the Polaroid Corporation gave him an SX-70 instant camera and an unlimited supply of color film. The camera delighted Evans, who reveled in its speed and ease of use. The fourteen unique Polaroid images in the Cantor show find Evans plying his career-long preoccupation with signage and quotidian objects with new eyes and enthusiasm. It’s as though the new medium gave Evans a new way to imbue ordinary objects with hidden meaning and mystery.
“Stare,” Evans famously said. “It is the way to educate your eye, and more. Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long.”
In a career of nearly 50 years, the photographer did just that and came away with a visual knowledge few have equaled. The Cantor show may be your last chance for a long time to see a full range of what it was he finally knew.
“Walker Evans” @ Cantor Arts Center, Stanford University, through April 8, 2012.
About the Author:
Jack Fischer is the former art critic for the San Jose Mercury News. Over a 30-year career writing for major metropolitan newspapers across the country he as won awards for his investigative, feature and arts writing, and was part of the staff that won the Pulitzer Prize at the Mercury News for its coverage of the 19898 Loma Prieta earthquake. He lives in San Jose.