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REVIEW: Walker Evans, A Vernacular Style

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Walker Evans, Alabama Tenant Farmer Floyd Bourroughs, 1936
(© Walker Evans Archive/The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Tickets for London’s most popular art exhibition this spring, the blockbuster David Hockney retrospective at Tate Britain, cost £19.50 each. Now you can catch the same show at the Pompidou in Paris, as well as the museum’s comprehensive and thoughtful Walker Evans retrospective, for €14.00. (What’s more galling: the vast gap between what you have to pay to see art in London vs Paris, or the vast gap in what art you can actually see?)

The last time the UK hosted a Walker Evans’ photography exhibition was 14 years ago, when Evans’ Polaroids were shown at The Photographers’ Gallery and his work was part of Cruel and Tender: The Real in the Twentieth Century Photograph at Tate Modern. The current show at the Pompidou includes over 400 prints, artefacts and documents, including, as the organisers justifiably claim, the best examples of his work. Alongside these are some of Evans’ more telling personal possessions – postcards, advertising placards, signs and posters, which he photographed and collected as he travelled around the country.

Born in St Louis, Missouri, in 1903, Evans was the son of an advertising executive (which perhaps helps explain his fondness for ad posters). Aged 23 he spent a year in Paris, translating Baudelaire and Blaise Cendrars and tentatively taking photographs. Some of his early images in this show, like New York City Street Corner, 1929, are somewhat reminiscent of Paul Strand with their dramatic angles and lighting.

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Walker Evans, New York City Street Corner, 1929.
(© Walker Evans Archive/The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

However, there’s no evidence that Evans knew the older photographer, and in 1929 he was introduced to the work of someone who would prove much more influential: Eugène Atget.

Atget’s champion in America was Berenice Abbot. Like Evans, she had gone from New York to Paris in the 1920s and clearly thrived there, studying sculpture and assisting Man Ray before opening her own studio where she photographed the likes of James Joyce and Jean Cocteau. Man Ray introduced her to Eugène Atget, then in his late 60s, and the two became friends. On his death, Abbott acquired the photographer’s archive and brought it to NY. Evans first encountered Atget’s work in Berenice’s apartment, and the experience was clearly a formative one.

Atget’s pictures of turn of the century Paris avoided arty effects, concentrating on simple subjects simply composed: people at ground level, ordinary buildings and streets, unprepossessing store fronts and shop windows.

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Eugène Atget, Cours D’Amoy 12, Place de la Bastille, c.1895

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Walker Evans, Joe’s Auto Graveyard, 1935
(© Walker Evans Archive/The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

In terms of both subject matter and approach, Atget’s work clearly struck a chord with the young Walker Evans. Some of his subsequent work seems like homage to specific Atget images – like the abandoned Model T Fords in Joe’s Auto Graveyard which echo the piles of carriage wheels in Cours D’Amoy 12, Place de la Bastille.

Much later in his life, in an interview in 1971, Evans said: “You don’t want your work to spring from art; you want it to commence from life, and that’s in the street now. I’m interested in what’s called vernacular. For example, finished, I mean educated, architecture doesn’t interest me, but I love to find American vernacular”.

“Vernacular” is the word that the Pompidou’s curator Clément Cheroux has seized on for this exhibition. He uses it to describe Evans’ pictures of roadside shacks and billboards, the visual language of America, as well as the people themselves. Evans shot people in much the same way he shot houses and film posters: simply and with sincerity.

In 1938 Evans started photographing commuters on the New York subway, using a miniature camera hidden inside his coat to catch people off guard and unawares. MOMA describes how he “concealed his 35-millimeter Contax camera by painting its shiny chrome parts black and hiding it under his topcoat, with only its lens peeking out between two buttons. He rigged its shutter to a cable release, whose cord snaked down his sleeve and into the palm of his hand, which he kept buried in his pocket. For extra assurance, he asked his friend and fellow photographer Helen Levitt to join him on his subway shoots, believing that his activities would be less noticeable if he was accompanied by someone.” A collection of these images, edited from over 600 originals, was eventually published in 1966 in a book entitled Many Are Called, with text by Evans’ writer friend James Agee.

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Walker Evans, Subway Photographs, 1938-1941
(© Walker Evans Archive/The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The Subway Photographs in this exhibition are small and intense. Their tight framing and artificial light gives them a dramatic feel, but they are entirely natural. Evans described these pictures as “what a portrait ought to be, anonymous and documentary and a straightforward picture of mankind.”

Some of his most famous portraits, also in the show, share these qualities – apart from the anonymity. Evans’ portrait of Allie Mae Burroughs has become one of the most recognisable images in American photography. A mother of four and, at just 27, old beyond her years, Burroughs was the wife of a sharecropper whose family was documented by Evans and James Agee in another book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Four frames of Allie Mae exist, with her expression varying from anxiety to a hint of a smile. The exhibition shows two versions, with recordings of Allie Mae talking about her experiences.

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Walker Evans, Allie Mae Burroughs, Hale County, Alabama, 1936
(© Walker Evans Archive/The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Walker was chary of commercial commissions, but in 1935 was contracted to work with the “historical unit” of the Farm Security Administration (FSA), part of the Department of Agriculture, on a project to document rural America, primarily the South, in pictures. He spent 18 months travelling, often alone, recording the people and their way of life. In 1936 he started working with Agee, a journalist writing for Fortune magazine, and accompanied him to Hale County, Alabama, where they met the Burroughs family and their neighbours.

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Walker Evans, Bud Field and his Family, Hale County, Alabama, 1936
(© Walker Evans Archive/The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The pictures, and Agee’s words, never made it into Fortune, but with the publication of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men in 1941, the sharecropping families of Hale County were immortalised, their poverty presented with unflinching but undramatic clarity.

In 1943 Evans was hired by Time Inc., and worked for the company, mainly Fortune, for the next 22 years. One set of images in this exhibition, Anonymous Labour, shows men and women walking in the street in Detroit on a Saturday afternoon in 1946. Photographed from below waist height, they hurry past, a few casting suspicious glances towards the photographer, most ignoring him. Fortune’s text reads, “The American worker, as he passes here, generally unaware of Walker Evans’ camera, is a decidedly various fellow… When editorialists lump them as ‘labor,’ these labourers can no doubt laugh that one off.’

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Walker Evans, Anonymous Labor, 1946

The legendary John Szarkowski, Director of the Photography Department at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, described Evans’ work as “puritanically economical, precisely measured… qualities that seemed more appropriate to a bookkeeper’s ledger than to art.

“But… [his art] constitutes a personal survey of the interior resources of the American tradition, a survey based on a sensibility that found poetry and complexity where most earlier travelers had found only drab statistics or fairy tales.”

This exhibition is comprehensive in a way Evans himself might appreciate. It presents a vast amount of material, neatly and accessibly, and rewards the patient visitor with wonderful discoveries.

Walker Evans: A Vernacular Style, Centre Pompidou, Paris, until August 14th, 2017

© Fiona Hayes 2017

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