A visionary look at the everyday

Walker Evans' photographs, now at the Met in New York, haunt the viewer

with their unadorned insights into America.

February 27, 2000|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

Today the name Walker Evans (1903-1975) is practically synonymous with "documentary photography," a term which, when applied to his work, is at once laudatory and somewhat misleading.

Evans is famous for his razor-sharp, view-camera-on-tripod photographs of Depression-era farm families in the rural South and for his brooding, rheumy-eyed portraits of New York City subway riders, whom he managed to catch unawares with a trick viewfinder attached to his miniature Leica camera.

Those images have by now seeped so deeply into America's collective national unconscious that hardly anyone can visualize what the country looked like 75 years ago outside the context of Evans' iconic images.

Yet Evans was never a mere documentarian. He would have found the idea that the main value of his photographs lay in their status as historical record as laughable as the notion that one reads "Hamlet" to learn the proper etiquette for addressing ghosts.

Instead, Evans was a poet with a camera. He created "documents" only in the sense that his images owed their authenticity to the chaotic visual vernacular of modern American life -- its hodgepodge of old and new architecture, its forests of traffic signs, advertising billboards, utility poles and roadside graffiti, its passing parade of social types high and low.

In Evans' photographs the most ordinary, unremarkable people, places and things suddenly took on monumental significance when framed by the light of his acute and hugely idiosyncratic vision. Like every great photographer before and after him, his pictures resonate because of how he looked at the world, not what he photographed. Evans' gift was to psychologically penetrate his subjects with his lens, immobilizing them forever in the specimen box of his wildly original imagination.

That imagination is the subject of a major exhibition at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art that opened this month and runs through May 14.

The show is the first comprehensive retrospective of the artist's work. It features 175 vintage images, from the late 1920s to the early 1970s, including his signature pictures of Alabama cotton farmers, African-American churches in South Carolina and New York subway riders, plus a selection of 50 or so Polaroid SX-70 images made by the photographer at the very end of his life.

A would-be writer

Evans was born in St. Louis in 1903, the son of an ambitious advertising executive father who moved the family first to Kenilworth, Ill., an affluent suburb of Chicago, and later to Toledo, Ohio, where Evans attended public school.

When Evans was 16, his parents' marriage broke up, and he was sent to boarding school. By the time he entered Williams College in Massachusetts during the fall of 1922, he had decided on a career as a writer.

At Williams, Evans devoured a self-assigned reading program of modern French, English and American literature -- his favorites were T.S. Eliot, Gustave Flaubert, James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway. He read voraciously, ignored his course work and flunked out at the end of his freshman year.

Next he moved to New York, took odd jobs and continued reading. In 1926 he sailed for Paris and stayed there 13 months. But as a young, virtually unknown writer, he was far too intimidated to mix with the successful expatriate circle there that included Hemingway, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, William Carlos Williams, Archibald MacLeish and Ezra Pound.

Indeed, in Paris Evans began to doubt whether he would ever become a writer. He told himself he lacked patience for it -- perhaps a kinder, gentler way of saying his ambition overreached his talent. Meanwhile he was taking snapshots of his environs, apparently less for art's sake than to reassure himself later that he'd actually had his solitary sojourn abroad.

Back in New York, Evans made a stab at commercial photography, but his heart wasn't in it. He managed to meet Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen, then the reigning gods of art photography, but neither of them offered much encouragement.

Evans cordially returned their disdain. However, he soon found a kindred spirit in photographer Berenice Abbott, also recently returned from Paris, who introduced him to the work of Eugene Atget, the pioneering French documentarian whose lyrical views of the City of Light finally pointed Evans toward the aesthetic of unadorned naturalism that over the next decade would result in his finest pictures.

Unforced authenticity

The Met show is rich in the images that have come to define Evans' mature style of the decade between 1930 and 1940, an era of profound economic dislocation and social unrest that paradoxically liberated a generation of American artists to re-envision the national life and character.

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