Walker Evans – Depth of Field

I was so excited when I saw mention of an upcoming Walker Evans’ exhibition almost a year ago on the L’Oeil de la Photographie website. The exhibition did not disappoint! It was co-organized by the Josef Albers Museum Quaddrat and the High Museum of Art, in collaboration with the Vancouver Art Gallery. It is the first encompassing retrospective exhibition of Evans’ work since 1971 and features more than 200 black and white and colour prints from the 1920s through to the 1970s, including his iconic images made in during the Great Depression. The exhibition and its companion publication explore the transatlantic roots and repercussions of Evans’ contribution to the field of photography and examine his development of a lyrical documentary style, in which a powerful personal perspective is fused with a rigorously detailed depiction of time and place (Vancouver Art Gallery).

Untitled, Self-portrait, Cuba 133 by Walker Evans
Untitled, Self-portrait, Cuba 133 by Walker Evans

The exhibition was well laid out. Evans’ work was displayed in chronological sequence beginning with his early works which mainly focused on ‘abstractions of architecture, showing a clear interest in the constructivist style form Germany  and Russia’ (Hill, 2015:30). Images ranged from a variety of angles of the Brooklyn Bridge to high-rises in Manhattan and the Chrysler building under construction. Hill (2015: 31) describes his style as ‘more dependent on form than content’ during this period.

Wash Day, ca 1930 by Walker Evans
Wash Day, ca 1930 by Walker Evans

While Evans was overseas in Paris, he befriended Hanns Skolle and Paul Grotz and embraced the Neue Sachlichkeit concepts. Hill suggests that a better translation for this concept would be “Thingness” (Hill, 2015: 31). The Neue Sachlichkeit photographers work was characterized by images that focused on everyday and non-beautiful – recognition of the banal as worthy subject matter.

Berenice Abbott, 1930 by Walker Evans
Berenice Abbott, 1930 by Walker Evans

According to Jerry L. Thompson (2015: 95) Walker Evans did not like doing portraiture work, although he did do a large number of them in his studio. He suggests that possibly Evans only did studio portraiture in order to make money and pay the bills, but he found no art in it.

When Evans was working as an artist to photograph people, he usually chose not to rely on any formula productive of the sort of consistency desirable in a professional practice. Even when working indoors he typically started with seeing, rather than with some preconceived (and verbal) notion of what he was after.

Thompson (2015: 96)

Evans’s Cuban oeuvre (which was to provide photos for Carleton Beals’s book The Crime of Cuba) denotes the emergence of his singular style. Evans was heavily influenced by Paul Strand’s work, particularly Strand’s Blind Woman image. The Cuban project also provides a checklist of Evans’s emerging methods and demands:

  1. He continued to work in series.
  2. He appropriated files from newspapers and these were incorporated into his essays with due credit given.
  3. His 31-photo essay was negotiated separately as an independent commentary from Beals’s text.
  4. He had control of the editing, sequencing, titles and placement.
  5. He made a serious effort to control the dust jacket design of the book.
Halsted Street Chicago (Two Blind Street Musicians) 1941 by Walker Evans
Halsted Street Chicago (Two Blind Street Musicians) 1941 by Walker Evans

A portion of the exhibition was devoted to his photographs of African sculptures and the Antebellum architecture found on the American sugar plantations. Many of these images had me thinking about the movie Gone with the Wind.

Obviously the most impressive section of the exhibition was his work associated with the Farm Security Administration which ranged from 1935 – 1938.  Refusing to make images for political of propaganda purposes, Evans pursued his own agenda. “Well, a subsidized freedom to do my stuff! Good heavens, what more could anyone ask for! … I had a whole hot year tremendously productive (quoted in Mellow, p. 266)” (Hill 2015: 162).

For me the most impressive image in the exhibition would have to be the photograph of Sharecropper Bud Fields and his family at home. Hale County, Alabama, 1936. Unlike most of the other images in the collection, this photograph was at least a metre wide so the visual impact was quite stunning. Surrounded by white mat and frame, the texture of the wooden wall boards and floor just jumped out at the viewer. The subjects’ gazes are intense and candidly honest, demanding a respect which only really becomes evident when viewed at that size. Every aspect of this image is tact sharp and shouts out for the viewer’s scrutiny. I felt so engaged with this image I felt as if I was standing in the room with these people.

Sharecropper Bud Fields and his family at home. Hale County, Alabama, 1936 by Walker Evans
Sharecropper Bud Fields and his family at home. Hale County, Alabama, 1936 by Walker Evans

Having research Walker Evans for an earlier segment of this module, specifically his subway portraits, it was quite fascinating to see this collection of portraits as well as the concealed camera that he used to make these photographs in the exhibition. From various reports I had previously read, I had envisioned the camera to be a lot smaller, but it is quite large and the lens is not exactly discrete either. Such a protuberance between his coat buttons would definitely have garnered a few strange looks (which it did as evidenced by one or two of the portraits).

Contax II 35 mm camera used by Walker Evans for the New York subway portraits
Contax II 35 mm camera used by Walker Evans for the New York subway portraits

I also enjoyed Walker Evans’s series of signage photographs and his series on banal items. I was not aware that he also took photographs of this sort prior to viewing the exhibition. There were a few beer can tab images in the collection, but the collage below was my favourite, simply because of its textuality, quirkiness and originality.

Collage of beer can tabs, ca 1972 by Walker Evans
Collage of beer can tabs, ca 1972 by Walker Evans
Signs by Walker Evans
Signs by Walker Evans
Kitchen wall, Alabama Farmstead, 1936 by Walker Evans
Kitchen wall, Alabama Farmstead, 1936 by Walker Evans

There was also an entire section devoted to Evans’s Polaroids. According to the wall text he acquired a Polaroid camera in the last two years of his life and according to him, he “felt quite rejuvenated by it …True, with that little camera your work is done the instant you push that button. But you must think what goes into that. …It’s the first time, I think, that you can put a machine in an artists’ hands and have him then rely entirely on his vision and his taste and his mind” (Hill: 2015: 370).

This was a huge, well laid out exhibition to take in and is well worth a second look. The hefty (and extremely pricey – $95) accompanying publication is liberally spiced with essays and interesting backstories as well as most of the images in the exhibition, which I look forward to delving into in more depth. I certainly came away from the exhibition with a better understanding about the identity of Walker Evans.

Reference List

Hill, J.T. (2015). ‘Origins and Early Work, 1926 – 1931’ In: Liesbrock, H; Shapiro, M; Bartels, K (dir) Walker Evans: Depth of Field. Vancouver Art Gallery. London: Prestel Publishing pp 30-34.

Hill, J.T. (2015). ‘Farm Security Administration, 1935 – 1938’ In: Liesbrock, H; Shapiro, M; Bartels, K (dir) Walker Evans: Depth of Field. Vancouver Art Gallery. London: Prestel Publishing pp 162 -164.

Hill, J.T. (2015). ‘Polaroid Instant Color Photographs., 1973 – 1975’ In: Liesbrock, H; Shapiro, M; Bartels, K (dir) Walker Evans: Depth of Field. Vancouver Art Gallery. London: Prestel Publishing p 370.

Thompson J.T (2015). ‘”Quiet and true”: The Portrait Photographs of Walker Evans’ In Liesbrock, H; Shapiro, M; Bartels, K (dir) Walker Evans: Depth of Field. Vancouver Art Gallery. London: Prestel Publishing pp 95 – 100.

Vancouver Art Gallery (2016) Walker Evans: Depth of Field [online]. Available at http://www.vanartgallery.bc.ca/the_exhibitions/exhibit_evans.html [Accessed 4 December, 2016]

Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History (n.d.) Blind | Paul Strand [online] Met Museum. Available at: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/33.43.334/ [Accessed 4 December, 2016]

Images

Evans, Walker (1936) Sharecropper Bud Fields and his family at home. Hale County, Alabama [online]. Medium: 1 negative : safety ; 8 x 10 inches or smaller. Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-ppmsc-00234 (digital file from print) LC-DIG-ppmsca-12880 (digital file from print) LC-USF342–T01-008147-A (b&w film dup. neg.) LC-USZC4-4898 (color film copy transparency from print). Call Number: LC-USF342- 008147-A [P&P]. Repository: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, DC 20540 USA . Available at: http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/fsa/item/fsa1998020957/PP/ [Accessed 4 December, 2016]

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6 thoughts on “Walker Evans – Depth of Field”

  1. In the Genius of Photography, Joel Meyerowicz says Atget is photography’s Mozart. For what it’s worth I think Evans is Beethoven. Looks like a great exhibition! And that picture of Abbott is raw!

    Like

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