The Metropolitan Museum of Art

New York, NY



Walker Evans

February 1 - May 14, 2000


The first comprehensive retrospective of the celebrated American photographer Walker Evans (1903-1975) - who made an unprecedented study of American culture for nearly half a century, from the late 1920s through the early 1970s - will be on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art through May 14, 2000. "Walker Evans" will include 175 vintage photographs, including his renowned images of Alabama cotton farmers, African American churches in South Carolina, and New York subway riders, drawn from public and private collections in the United States and Canada. The exhibition will feature newly available material from the Walker Evans Archive, a vast collection of the artist's negatives and papers acquired by the Metropolitan Museum in 1994. (right: Alabama Tenant Farmer Wife [Allie Mae Burroughs], 1936, Gelatin silver print, 20.5 x 15.3 cm, Photography Collection, Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, The University of Texas at Austin)

"Walker Evans's compelling images of Americans and American life convey masterfully the poetic resonance of the ordinary as transformed by a personal artistic vision," said Philippe de Montebello, Director of the Metropolitan Museum. "With keen intellect, astounding visual acuity, and superb technical skill, he captured for us the very text and texture of 20th-century America." (left: [Subway Passengers, New York], 1938, Gelatin silver print, 12.2 x 15.0 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Arnold H. Crane, 1971, 1971.646. 18)

Reacting against the pictorialist tradition of Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, and others of the preceding generation of photographers, Evans banished all "artiness" and artifice from his practice and let the subject - be it a West Virginia coal miner, a roadside vegetable stand in Alabama, or a torn movie poster on Cape Cod - reveal itself directly to the viewer with exquisite candor. He recorded everyday life in many forms - popular culture, the iconography of commerce and consumerism, the automobile and its impact on the landscape, new poverty, old wealth, and everything in between.

Born in St. Louis in 1903, Walker Evans was raised in Kenilworth, a Chicago suburb, and in Toledo, Ohio. Educated at Andover and Williams College, Evans developed a love of contemporary literature - for Joyce and Eliot - and for the French modernists, Baudelaire and Flaubert. His passion for literature, coupled with a resentment of authority and academic conventionality, impelled Evans to abandon the classroom for the streets and cafés of Paris in 1926. He returned to New York the following year intent on becoming a writer, but by 1928 he had also taken up photography. (left: Main Street, Saratogn Springs, New York, 1931, Gelatin silver print, 17.0 x 14.6 cm, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Anonymous Fund,404.38.8)

To make ends meet, he tried advertising photography, which he found vapid. Supporting himself with odd jobs, he taught himself to use the camera as a writer uses a pen - to inscribe the meaning of what he saw around him. His early photographic projects, some commissioned, some self-motivated, examined aspects of contemporary American life and its environment - the streets of New York, Victorian architecture in New England, the Brooklyn Bridge. He made abstract compositions of electric signs, sidewalk displays, and shadows cast by elevated train platforms, and documented the city with the combined interests of the historian and the anthropologist. Evans found in these subjects an authentic expression of what was most American about America, and his lasting achievement was to express that sense of indigenous national character in his photographs. He wanted his work, as he once said, to be "literate, authoritative, transcendent." (left: [Shop Front, New Orleans], 1935, Gelatin silver print, 24.4 x 19.2 cm, Private collection, New Jersey)

In the early 1930s Evans was hired to make photographs in Cuba for Carleton Beals's book The Crime of Cuba (1933), an exposé of the conditions under which Cubans lived during the oppressive dictatorship of Machado y Morales. It was in Havana that the young photographer captured some of his first images of poverty, destitution, and despair, and also made his first great portraits of working people.

In 1935-37, Evans worked for Roosevelt's New Deal Resettlement (later Farm Security) Administration, photographing in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. In the process of producing images that met the project's goal - alerting America's increasingly urban society to the condition of the rural poor in the midst of the Depression - Evans achieved with clarity and precision his self-assigned mission: to define his subject with an educated awareness of what it is, and to describe it with such simplicity and certainty that the result seems an unchallengeable fact untainted by opinion. Possessing an inherent grace and structure, his photographs of shopfronts, barbershops, and rural homes are rich in details of daily life and, at times, of desperate need. (right: Broadway, 1930, Gelatin silver print, 26.9 x 23.3 cm, Collection of Alan and Gloria Siegel, New York)

With the writer James Agee, Evans created a written and photographic portrait of cotton tenant farmers in the South, which became the seminal book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941). Its portraits of the Burroughs family - a sharecropper, his wife, and children - and pictures of their home in Hale County, Alabama, are today among the iconic images of the century. These photographs, all dating from the summer of 1936, will be featured in a special gallery dedicated to this unparalleled collaboration between writer and photographer.

In 1938, a selection from his first decade of work was exhibited by the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and published as American Photographs, a 20th-century classic that is still in print. From 1938 to 1941 Evans photographed people in the New York subways, "the ladies and gentlemen of the jury." Caught unaware by a camera hidden inside Evans's jacket, the faces of New York's underground travelers are worthy of Dickens or Daumier. Evans published this series in 1966 as Many are Called. (right: Torn Movie Poster, 1930, Gelatin silver print, 16 x 10.9 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Ford Motor Company Collection, Gift of Ford Motor Company and John C. Waddell, 1987, 1987.1100.59)

Evans worked for Time magazine (1943-45) and later for Fortune magazine (1945-65) as a Special Photographic Editor, producing some 40 portfolios and photographic essays, many in color, often self-assigned and with his own accompanying text. The pictures made for Fortune - of railroad company insignias, downtown Chicago, common tools, a Mississippi riverfront town in Kentucky, and views of America from a train window - exhibit the simplicity and intelligence that are the essence of Evans's style. The exhibition will include a large selection of the original Fortune magazines, black-and-white prints produced for the portfolios, and an extensive series of color images shown on a video screen.

After his retirement from Fortune, Evans taught photography at Yale University. He also disseminated his understanding of the humbler modes of graphic art and commercial display as essential forms of popular art by exhibiting and lecturing on his collections of roadside signs and picture postcards. (left: [Street Scene, Vicksburg, Mississippi], 1936, Gelatin silver print, 18.1 x 24.1 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Marlene Nathan Meyerson Family Foundation Gift, in memory of David Nathan Meyerson and Pat and John Rosenwald, and Lila Acheson Wallace Gifts, 1999, 1999.237.1)

In 1973-74 Evans worked with the just-released SX-70 Polaroid instant camera, returning to some of his most important themes - portraiture, architecture, and signs. The exhibition concludes with a selection of approximately 50 of these small but potent studies of color and form, dense condensations of a people's vital spirit and an artist's brilliant life work.

Walker Evans died in 1975.

"Walker Evans" will be accompanied by two books: a monograph with contributions by Maria Morris Hambourg, Curator-in-Charge, and by Jeff L. Rosenheim, Assistant Curator, both in the Metropolitan Museum's Department of Photographs, published by Princeton University Press; and an anthology of materials from the Walker Evans Archive, including Evans's short stories, important correspondence and criticism, and selections from his 40,000 negatives, published by Scalo Publishers. Both publications will be available in the Metropolitan Museum's bookstore. (left: [Church, Beaufort, South Carolina], 1936, Gelatin silver print, 22.7 x 18.5 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Marlene Nathan Meyerson Family Foundation Gift, in memory of David Nathan Meyerson and Pat and John Rosenwald, and Lila Acheson Wallace Gifts, 1999, 1999.237.3)

Jeff L. Rosenheim is curator of the exhibition. Exhibition design is by Daniel Kershaw, Exhibition Designer.

The exhibition is made possible by Prudential Securities. The conservation of the Walker Evans Archive has been made possible through the generous support of the William Randolph Hearst Foundation as part of the Save America's Treasures program. Additional conservation support has been provided by The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Henry J. Nias Foundation, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The publication is made possible by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Following its New York presentation, Walker Evans will travel to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (June 2 - September 12, 2000) and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (December 17, 2000 - March 4, 2001).

Please also see Perfect Documents: Walker Evans and African Art, 1935 (2/25/00)

Read more about the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Resource Library Magazine

For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

rev. 12/27/10

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