|Walker Evans, Subway Passengers, 1938|
Even for those of us who are not Walker Evans fans, it’s difficult to dispute the importance of his work. However, his influence on the development of photography as art and documentary in the twentieth century is so great that there’s a risk visitors will find the current exhibition at the Centre Pompidou predictable. So much of what Evans did with the medium has become household, to the point where it’s as though many of his inventions are no longer his. Yet, there is still much to gain from a visit to this huge exhibition.
The exhibition text claims that Evans wanted to find an identity of America through his camera lens. Certainly, his images cannot be divorced from Depression-era America, even if there are elements of international modernism at work in them. It’s interesting to think about what that image of America is, particularly, as it is so clearly driven by capitalism as it was developing in the first half of the twentieth century. Evans’ focus on advertising, shop signage, window displays, objects and of course, poverty as its fall out represent the substance of his vision of America. Even though he clearly chose to photograph the everyday people, I’m not sure that Evans' sole impetus was to draw a very political image of America. Because his interest in form, structure, and replication says as much about the photograph as medium as it does about the thing being represented. Surely, the social and ideological critique is just one element of his life's work?
|Walker Evans, Floyd Burroughs, |
cotton sharecropper, 1935/36
Nevertheless, the photographs still have a strong political and social message. Now Let us Praise Famous Men, Evans project with James Agee in the Depression-ridden American South includes perhaps some of his best known images. Their exposure of American poverty as the flip side of modernity was acclaimed at the time in the 1930s. For me, there’s something shocking about the same photographs today. Namely, their resonance a century later when American poverty might look different, but it is as crushing as it was following the great depression. Seeing Evans’ photographs again reminded me that even though American artists have been exposing these injustices for 100 years, the country (by which I mean those in charge) continues to ignore the unrelenting divide between rich and poor.
I did have a couple of problems with the exhibition, and the first was the display of Allie Mae Burrough’s photograph in a room of its own at the midway mark. Given Evans’ use of photography to represent everyday life, his emphasis on repetition, on the published photograph as one of thousands, placing a single image in a shrine-like display so that viewers can bestow adulation on it as if it were the Mona Lisa seems to disrespect everything about the photograph. This is a curatorial choice that reinforces the arbitrary iconic value of a single image over the thousands he produced, and thus, panders to, rather than extends, popular conceptions of art. I found it to be an extremely odd decision.
Secondly, while there is much to learn from the exhibition, particularly thanks to the sheer number of photographs on display, there could have been more transparency with regard to Evans’ process. To give an example: in arguably his most exciting and apparently most aleatory photographs, Evans took hundreds of photographs on the New York subway with a hidden camera for a project, again with James Agee, Many are Called. The 1930s photographs are striking for their raw and “honest” depictions of faces unaware of being photographed. The assumption is that because they are depicted unknowingly, their guard is down and, similarly, the photograph itself is “unmanipulated.” It is true that the photographs are touching and intimate, offering a peek inside the inner life of the subjects on the other side of the subway car. However, the exhibition makes no mention of the fact that Evans very heavily edited the photographs in production. What we see are far from the “fly on the wall” images that might otherwise be assumed.
These flaws aside, together with the sometimes frustrating oscillation between chronological and thematic presentation of the work, as I say, it's a lovely exhibition. Evans’ meticulous and obsessive focus is made apparent through the groupings, particularly of photos of wooden houses, street signs, and portraits. That is, through the repetition across images and from theme to theme, visitors can easily identify the photographer’s concerns. In addition, because of its documentary nature, despite the huge number of photographs on display, Evans’ work is easy to look at, and the passage through the exhibition is relatively smooth. I also enjoyed seeing the way his photography consciously took the vernacular focus of documentary photography and made it into art, again something that is revealed across obsessive repetitions from theme to theme and photo to photo. And lastly, even for those who think that they have seen these photographs before, Evans’ analogue images yield much more in the flesh. Thanks to the cameras he used and his production process, the images don’t have the slickness or size of those of most art photographers working today. This gives them a delicacy and an intimacy that cannot be reproduced in books.