We just visited the Walker Evans exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
I first bumped into Walker Evans more than 20 years ago at the old San Francisco Museum of Art on Van Ness. There was a photography display, and I found the work by Evans particularly appealing. A great thing about visual imagery is that any version of it is better than no version at all, so I bought a handful of postcards in the Museum Gift shop.
Over the years, references to Evans refreshed my interest in him-as I saw new images, and was again drawn to his style (although I don’t think I could define it). I bought a few books, including the seminal work, “American Photographs”*, the catalog of his 1938 Museum of Modern Art (NY) exhibit, and the first photographic presentation by an individual in that major museum. My understanding is that Walker Evans’ insistence on this exhibit being viewed as a body of work rather than a collection of photographs was a novel idea at the time. It has also been said that this exhibit announced the arrival (and acceptance) of photography in the world of fine art.
Evans is best known for his Depression era work for the Farm Services Administration, and many of those images are burned into our collective memories, particularly his iconic portrait of Ellie Mae Burroughs, which he named “Alabama Cotton Tenant Farmer Wife”. –
This title is as straightforward as his images, there are no embellishments, it could be the label on a laboratory microscope slide-which in a sense it is-through Evans’ lens, we get a magnified close up of America.
But Walker Evans was about so much more than the human condition. His subject matter was the matter of everyday life-signs, billboards, and advertising, movie posters, automobiles, corner churches and gas stations, and window displays-all taken in his straightforward, almost documentary style. Curators and pundits call his choice of subject matter “vernacular photography” to define this style, he used the phrase “descriptive photography”. He made studio portraits of common hand tools, and his subway portraits, anonymous and candid photos of New York City riders (taken with a concealed camera), raised privacy invasion issues that continue to resonate today now that the abundance of cameras everywhere record many of our everyday movements.
Evans photographed and wrote about store displays, here are some along with his own comments-
Here is a detail of that last one-
I believe this was written by the curator-
I love the phrases, “Hodgepodge poetry of the miscellany store”, and “practical genius”
So why do I hate Walker Evans?
Because I have learned that so much of what I think of as my original work was done by him more than 80 years ago. I shoot a lot of store windows and signs. My images reflect my own sensibilities and interest, and often reflect my sense of humor.
OK, so nobody is going to put a frame around these and hang them in a museum.
It is widely accepted that there is nothing new, but did he have to do it so much better? Couldn’t he have left some crumbs for the rest of us?
At the end of the day, it is about vision, clarity and skill.
I hate guys like that.