A Bygone Time Captured Through the Lens of Walker Evans

Posted on March 17, 2016 by UNITED PHOTO PRESS MAGAZINE


The most comprehensive show of work by the photographer Walker Evans since the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s retrospective in 2000 will open at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta in June. While the photographer’s work has been exhibited widely and often, the South has not “been exposed to an Evans show of this scope and caliber,” said Brett Abbott, the High’s curator of photography. The High will be the show’s only stop in the United States — something of a coup for a regional museum.

The show, “Depth of Field,” originated last year at the Josef Albers Museum Quadrat in Bottrop, Germany, with the participation of John T. Hill, executor of the Evans estate, as the lead consulting curator, in collaboration with Heinz Liesbrock, director of the Josef Albers Museum, and Mr. Abbott.

A sizable number of photographs that Evans took in the 1930s in the South on assignment for the Farm Security Administration will be shown, along with his well-known photographs of tenant farmers and their families in Hale County, Ala., published in the 1941 book “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” which Evans wrote with James Agee.

The curators wanted to place the Farm Security Administration material in the context of Evans’s career, assembling, as well, work he made on the streets of New York and Cuba in the 1930s, his work for Fortune magazine in the ’40s and ’50s, and his color images from late in life. Included, too, are rarely seen portraits of his accomplished friends and colleagues, such as Lincoln Kirstein and Berenice Abbott, as well as his self-portraits. Evans claimed Eugène Atget and August Sander as his major influences, and examples of their photographs from the High’s permanent collection will be in the show.

Given the ever-morphing dimensions of contemporary photography — ranging from constructed narrative scenes made in the studio to ideologically-based assemblages of found Internet imagery — much of the work being shown in galleries today is positioned at a century-arm’s length from Evans’s straightforward, black-and-white documentation of the reality-based world. It’s not hard to imagine, then, a modern urban artivore rolling his eyes at the seemingly retrograde Evans show.

Asked why this show has relevance, Mr. Abbott laughed. “There’s probably no question that Evans is one of the great artists of the 20th century,” he said. “That’s always a good enough reason for me.”

Evans was also very influential; he was the first photographer to have a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, in 1938, and his work was important to consequential photographers like Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, Stephen Shore, William Eggleston, Bernd and Hilla Becher, and Paul Graham, to name only a few.


Throughout the 20th century, photography as proof, or documentation, of the physical world was a defining principle of the medium’s art-making practice. Evans’s simple, forthright approach, his clean compositional geometry, and the optical clarity of his pictures underscore the camera’s potential to record and describe the world with a starkness that is, at times, astonishing. As Garry Winogrand famously said, “There is nothing as mysterious as a fact clearly described.”