Empathy and discretion characterise the work of Walker Evans who accumulated thousands of photographs of 20th century America. In his own personal search for truth he rejected subjectivity, focusing on lonely souls, although not without a certain lyricism. From 26 April to 14 August 2017, the Centre Pompidou in Paris is organising his first ever French retrospective entitled Walker Evans, a vernacular style in a major show with more than 300 photographs and 100 rare documents. From his first photographs in the late 1920s to his Polaroids in the 1970s, the French museum has traced his entire career via numerous loans from major US public collections (the Metropolitan Museum, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the Chicago Art Institute, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, etc.) and some fifteen private collections.
Born on 3 November 1903 in St. Louis, Missouri, Walker Evans initially wanted to write. His taste for literature led him to a job in a New York bookstore before he decided to pursue his literary studies at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1926. At 23, he took his first pictures which were heavily impregnated with the ‘new literary conscience’; as he later said “Flaubert gave me a method, Baudelaire gave me the spirit. They influenced everything I did.” In 1928 he returned to the United States where he managed to survive as a photographer and his talent was soon noticed. In 1933 he was commissioned to cover the Cuban Revolution, a mission which led to the publication of The Crime of Cuba. Two years later, his work was exhibited alongside that of Henri Cartier-Bresson and he was incorporated into the photographic section of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) as part of a mission to document a New Deal programme implemented by Roosevelt after the great Depression. Bringing together highly talented photographers like Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee and Arthur Rothstein, the work of the photographic section of the FSA – whose mission was to capture the living conditions of farmers and rural Americans – had a major impact on the history of photography and indeed on American history. Walker Evans pictured anonymous paupers, rejecting effects in favor of a strict realism characterised by surgical precision and high degree of respect for his subjects. As he said, maintaining the right distance from the subject essentially reflects working “with an acute awareness of the world”.
Recognition came to Evans early in his life: he was 35 when New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) organised an exhibition in 1938 of photographs he took between 1929 and 1936 entitled Walker Evans: American Photographs. The exhibition was the MoMA’s first first ever solo show of a photographer’s work and henceforward Evans was recognized as one of the major figures in American documentary photography. The MoMA’s photography department did not yet exist (it opened in 1940) but Evans was already part of the prestigious institution’s DNA. In 1971 it organised another solo exhibition of Evans’ work. Meanwhile he enjoyed other solo exhibitions at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1948 and 1964, a scholarship from the Guggenheim Foundation in 1959 and the Carnegie Corporation Award in 1962.
The Centre Pompidou’s exhibition Walker Evans, a vernacular style honours a major figure of photography and highlights “all the little details of the everyday environment that make for “Americanness”: wooden roadside shacks, the way a shopkeeper lays out his wares in the window, the silhouette of the Ford Model T, the pseudo-cursive typography of Coca-Cola signs.” Overall, the show represents a fascinating exploration of American culture and is particularly welcome as it substantially expands our knowledge of his work, sometimes reduced to the America of the 1930s Great Depression. His most famous photographs are those he took of Allie Mae (Allie Mae Burroughs) and Floyd Burroughs, a couple of farmers living in Alabama whose striking portraits have become emblematic of the mission conducted by the FSA. They are also among his most expensive on the auction market. On 15 February 2006 the portrait of the husband fetched ten times its estimate ($307,200 at Sotheby’s New York). The Centre Pompidou’s exhibition also contains superb portraits from another famous series entitled Subway Passengers, work conducted between 1938 and 1941 as well as providing a particular emphasis on his landscapes, interiors, objects and signs that powerfully and yet delicately evoke the soul of an entire American era.