Walker Evans Essay

“Even a lay person with no understanding of photography will pick up sufficient signals.The idea here is to capture Evans’s legacy, placing it in context.” His legacy is one of clean, clear images—inspiration to the artists of the American avant-garde.

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a" data-cycle-paused="true" data-cycle-prev="#gslideshow_prev" data-cycle-next="#gslideshow_next" data-cycle-pager="#gslideshow_pager" data-cycle-pager-template=" " data-cycle-speed="750" data-cycle-caption="#gslideshow_captions" data-cycle-caption-template="" By Roslyn Bernstein A close-cropped view of an old-fashioned barber shop—two swivel chairs, white striped towels hanging on each arm, shaped glass bottles filled with strange liquids on a shelf, a smudged oval mirror, a speckled, plastered wall, newspaper clippings—this is “Negro Barber Shop Interior,” 1936, preserved by photographer Walker Evans, whose sharp vision captured the moment forever. Louis, Missouri in 1903, Evans graduated from Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts and studied French literature at Williams College; he dropped out after only one year to spend 1926 in Paris, where he became enamored of Eugene Atget’s intimate photographs of Paris and Parisians.

Upon his return, Evans was drawn into a lively literary and artistic circle in New York City that included John Cheever, Hart Crane, and Lincoln Kirstein.

Meister includes Lincoln Kirstein’s essay on Walker Evans’ “Photographs of Victorian Architecture,” printed in a 1933 Mo MA Bulletin, in a vitrine in the exhibit.

There, Kirstein wrote that “Evans’ photographs are such perfect documents that their excellence is not assertive.” Five years later, in the 1938 catalogue essay Kirstein praised Evans’s work for its “purity, or even its Puritanism.” Indeed, to him, the power of Evans’ work “lies in the fact that he so details the effect of circumstances on familiar specimens that the single face, the single house, the single street, strikes with the terrible cumulative force of thousands of faces, houses and streets.” In the end, then, it is the cumulative weight of Evans’ photographic portfolio that is his legacy: The sun-bleached boards of wooden frame houses, an unmade bed seen through a bedroom door, specials of the day posted on a roadside fish stand, the metal rimmed glasses and perfect moustache of the American Legionnaire.

Rather than “slavishly recreate what an important artist had already done,” the exhibit organizer, Sarah Hermanson Meister, Curator in the Department of Photography, with Drew Sawyer, a Curatorial Fellow, made several bold decisions aimed at evoking Evans’s spirit for a contemporary audience: the first was to look for space outside of the photography gallery.

Meister approached Ann Temkin, Chief Curator of Painting and Sculpture, and they looked at several spaces, including a room next to the European Surrealist galleries.

The first quotes from a list that Evans made in preparing the 1938 exhibit: “Show Ideas: small defined sections, people, faces, architecture, repetition, small pictures, large pictures.” Evans experimented with print size and groupings, made possible by the development of new technologies for enlargement in the 1930s.

A second wall text passage describes Evans’s work for the Resettlement Administration (RA).

While Meister preserved several important components of the 1938 show: a few large photos mounted directly on the wall and two instances of three images hung in a vertical row—a technique that Walker Evans himself used—there is not a one-to-one relation between the exhibit and the book.

In 1938, the book had 87 photographs organized into two sections, the first with 50 images and the second with 37 images while the exhibit had 100 images.


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