Walker Evans (1903-1975) has a major retrospective currently on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. In his long career, Evans dedicated himself to capturing Americans of all kinds, particularly the seedy or working classes and his art is as much an example of the power of photography as it is a documentation of American life and culture in the 20th century.
In 1926 Evans went to France, but the formative moment of the artist’s development occurred when the U.S. economy crashed in 1929. While abroad, Evans was inspired by reading the French poet Baudelaire (1821-1867). Baudelaire often championed the weird and unusual, which inspired Evans to look at the deplorable people everyone else shunned. Coming back from France may have seemed like a quarter life crisis for Evans. He was a quarter of the way through his life and his country, because the Great Depression, was experiencing a crisis of its own. Luckily, Evans and the United States had their whole lives ahead of them. The formative years that overlapped the Great Depression certainly established a grit and solemnity in all of Walker’s works.
About his portraits of Depression-era people, Evans said in 1961, “They speak with their eyes. People out of work are not given to talking much about the one thing on their minds. You only sense, by indirection, degrees of anger, shades of humiliation and echoes of fear. The truth is, of course, that unemployment, let alone poverty, has to be lived in order to be understood.” Humiliation here is more compassionate than a James Bond super villain. Whereas the supervillain wants the hero to acknowledge his lack of control or lack of power, Evans wants the audience to acknowledge the lack of control of the subjects of these portraits, and Evans wants the audience to have the spiritual maturity to help them. Evans’ quote and photographs are about poverty and unemployment during the Great Depression, but certainly have resonance with the present day.
Evans would surely be amazed at how Detroit has plummeted from grace like the demon Geryon from Dante’s Inferno. This exhibit has two parts, and in the first group of rooms, Evans’ work on the Depression is displayed. In the second group of rooms, the curators show Evans’ photographs of people going to work in Chicago, Detroit, and New York City. Evans had a deep commitment to photography as taxonomy and cataloguing, but these photographs are more endearing and jarring because they aren’t merely objects. The viewer has to think about them as people. Evans was well-learned in how magazines and businesses market goods, and in a major career milestone the Museum of Modern Art in New York City had Evans photograph African Masks, which Evans captured with eerie scientific neutrality.
So when the viewer finally arrives, and in the last rooms of this exhibit finally sees Evans’ photos of people on their way to work who aren’t humiliated or downtrodden by the Great Depression, and these people are ennobled and graceful because they’re on their way to work on the subways of New York City, or going to the 1940’s factories of Detroit, after rooms filled with all of those inanimate objects like signs, storefronts, masks, doors, and lifeless buildings, the viewer just cracks like an egg with emotion.
In opposition to seeing this juxtaposition as jarring and conflicting, this exhibit ends with a call from Evans to see the fashions and vanities of the 1920’s and 1930’s as part of Evans’ larger themes in his life. So, Evans’ cataloguing of tools and houses parallels Evans’ advocacy for the people who use those houses and tools. Because Evans’ works aren’t so simple. Like his influence on Andy Warhol, Evans has absurdities and contradictions. Yes, posters and movies go out of fashion, , but this nostalgia isn’t just fatalistic sadness. These objects when they’re without people are rubbish. And it’s not a huge tragedy to start, lose, or rebirth denim jeans or vintage movies. For his part, Walker Evans might have known about the contradictions within his work. In 1971 he said, “A good art exhibition is alesson in seeing to those who need or want one, and a session of visual pleasure and excitement to those who don’t need anything – I mean the rich in spirit. Grunts, sighs, shouts, laughter and imprecations ought to be heard in a museum room. Precisely the place where these are usually suppressed. So, some of the values of pictures may be suppressed too, or plain lost in a formal exhibition.” If the viewer thinks Evans’ photos are corny – that he has to let go of the old Coca Cola poster – or that he hasn’t given enough credit to the Depression-era farmer, Evans knew that. The Tromp L’Oeil seduces the mind, but never the heart.
Well represented at the SF Moma show are Evans’ pictures of life scenes, snapshots from every day lives of Americans. In this category are photographs of signs and storefronts, workers, houses, transportation. Things were handmade; signs were hand painted, and often had to be written in order to be visible by car. Storefronts were deliberate peeks inside of a place to show a potential customer what was in the store. In a similar way, Evans photographed Victorian houses in New England. In simpler times, homes were built from the raw materials near at hand so a home is shaded by the same species of tree it is built of. In each photo, there is a taste of the area and the culture of the region.
Evans was an influence on pop art and Andy Warhol. The discerning art critic might have a hunch about this based on Evans’ love of nostalgia and newly discarded trash. Evans collected signs and took photographs of old movie posters. The movie posters apply to Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe photographs, but the coke bottles are spot on Warhol. Finally, the SF MoMA curators gave up the game by putting Warhol’s “Untitled” from 1985 in this show. So, the art of Walker Evans can be appreciated on a number of levels -- as historical documents, showing scenes of life from the 20th century. The photographs are insight into American culture that is evolving and has changed, but also still has deeply held roots. And in the end, because of their beauty and their graphic power, the images can be taken as inspiration for anyone today to make their own art and frame their own ideas, as any other masterpiece might do.