San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

photo: John Hazeltine

San Francisco, CA



Walker Evans

June 2- September 12, 2000


Presented by Douglas R. Nickel, SFMOMA curator of photography, the exhibition "Walker Evans" was organized by Jeff L. Rosenheim, assistant curator of photography for The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Walker Evans" includes 175 vintage photographs, plus newly available material from the Walker Evans Archive, a vast collection of the artist's negatives, papers, books and diaries acquired by the Metropolitan Museum in 1994.

Walker Evans (1903-1975) is recognized as one of the most influential modernists of the twentieth century. His unprecedented study of American culture spanned nearly half a century -- from the late 1920s through the early 1970s -- and directly and unsentimentally portrayed who we were as a people. Evans' classic images of life in small towns, New York subways and cotton farmers in the South became icons of our national identity. They assisted in shaping the varied currents of modern art -- from documentary to Pop to Conceptual -- and remain a source of inspiration for contemporary artists throughout the world.

"'Walker Evans' is the first exhibition since Evans' death to provide a critical overview of this great artist's career and goals. Evans' anti-romantic approach and existential sensibility were deeply influential for subsequent generations of photographers and curators; he established a beachhead for socially engaged, documentary-style art photography that made the work of Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, Diane Arbus and William Eggleston possible," notes Douglas Nickel.

Evans approached photography with a writer's eye, imbuing meaning to objects around him and revealing his subjects directly, honestly and without artifice. He was little impressed with the pictorialist images of Stieglitz, Steichen and others of the preceding generation. In his photographs of everyday life, Evans captured something elemental about what was most American about America, and his lasting achievement was to express that sense of indigenous national character in his photographs. He looked at contemporary American life as an anthropologist, exhibiting wealth and poverty, popular culture and the iconography of commerce and consumerism in his photographs.

Born in Saint Louis in 1903, Walker Evans was educated at Andover and Williams College, where he developed a passion for contemporary literature. An intolerance for academic conventionality and an interest in experimentation -- particularly in the work of such writers as James Joyce and T. S. Eliot and French modernists Charles Baudelaire and Gustave Flaubert -- led Evans to abandon his studies; in 1926 he moved to Paris in hope of becoming a writer. However, in 1927, setting aside his literary aspirations (he felt if he couldn't write like Joyce, he'd rather not write), Evans returned to New York. By 1928 he began to focus his efforts on taking photographs.

While supporting himself doing odd jobs, including a stint in advertising photography -- which he disliked -- Evans honed his photographic skills and developed a personal, expressive style. He wanted his work, he once said, to be "literate, authoritative, and transcendent."

In the early 1930s Evans was commissioned to make a series of photographs in Havana for Carleton Beals' book The Crime of Cuba, 1933. It was during this period -- while exposing the conditions of Cuban life under the oppressive dictatorship of Machado y Morales -- that the young photographer captured some of his first images of poverty and despair and made his first great portraits of working people.

In 1936, while on leave from Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal Resettlement (later the Farm Security Administration), Evans, with the writer James Agee, created a series of photographic portraits of Southern tenant farmers that would become the seminal book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, 1941. His iconic Depression-era portraits of the Burroughs family -- a sharecropper, his wife and children -- and pictures of their home in Hale County, Alabama, have become part of America's collective visual consciousness. Many of these photographs will be included in the exhibition.

In 1938, The Museum of Modern Art in New York exhibited American Photographs, a retrospective of works from Evans' first decade, and published a book by the same title. The book has become a twentieth-century classic; on the occasion of its publication, exhibition organizer Lincoln Kirstein compared Evans' pictures of contemporary American civilization to Atget's images of Paris or Mathew Brady's chronicles of the American Civil War. Kirstein lauded Evans' work for its intention, logic, continuity, climax, sense and perfection.

During Evans' tenure as an editor of photography for Time magazine (1943 to 1945) and later for Fortune (1945 to 1965), he produced some 40 portfolios and photographic essays, many self-assigned and published with his own accompanying text. This exhibition will include a selection of the black-and-white prints and an extensive series of color images produced for the Fortune magazine portfolios.

Evans taught photography at Yale University after his retirement from Fortune. From 1973 to 1974, working with the newly released SX-70 Poloroid instant camera, Evans returned to some of his earlier themes of portraiture and architecture. The exhibition will conclude with approximately 50 of these small but powerful studies, his final works.

The exhibition is accompanied by two books: the first volume, entitled Walker Evans, is a scholarly monograph with contributions by Maria Morris Hambourg and Jeff L. Rosenheim, both in the Metropolitan Museum's department of photographs. The second volume, Walker Evans Anthology, contains materials from the Walker Evans Archive, including selections from Evans' writings -- his early short stories, important correspondence and criticism -- and reproductions from his 40,000 negatives. Both publications will be available in the SFMOMA Museum Store.

Following its presentation at SFMOMA, the exhibition will travel to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (December 17, 2000 to March 4, 2001), and to the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (January to April 2001).

The exhibition was organized by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, (click on The Metropolitan's name for more on the Evans exhibition there) New York.

The San Francisco presentation is generously supported by Robertson Stephens and the Gruber Family Foundation.


Concurrent Exhibition

"Walker Evans/Sources and Influence: Selections from the Prentice and Paul Sack Photographic Trust" will be on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art concurrently with "Walker Evans." Organized by Douglas R. Nickel, SFMOMA curator of photography, the exhibition has been designed to lend context to "Walker Evans," the first comprehensive retrospective of the celebrated American photographer.

Every great artist is representative of his or her time and an exception to it; every great work, even if it may seem in retrospect to transcend the specific circumstances of its making, comes out of a context. No clearer illustration of this precept can be found than in the photographs of Walker Evans. The 34 photographs in this two-part exhibition address the issues of influence and context. In his lifetime, Evans gave only grudging acknowledgment to a handful of antecedents and contemporaries whose efforts he felt bore some relation to his own. Furthermore, Evans' example proved to be of undeniable consequence for the many artists who followed him; the second part of this exhibition examines their own negotiation of personal expression and his precedent.

Artists whose work is represented in the exhibition include Berenice Abbott, Diane Arbus, Eugène Atget, Margaret Bourke-White, Matthew Brady, Talbot Brewer, William Christenberry, William Eggleston, Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, Paul Grotz, Dorothea Lange, Sherrie Levine, Helen Levitt, Wright Morris, Alexander Rodchenko, Ed Ruscha, August Sander, Peter Sekaer, Ben Shahn, Stephen Shore, Edward Steichen, Ralph Steiner, Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand, John Szarkowski, John Vachon, Andy Warhol, Dan Weiner, and Walker Evans himself. The photographs on view were selected from holdings of the Prentice and Paul Sack Photographic Trust and SFMOMA's permanent collection of photography. Formed in December 1998, the Prentice and Paul Sack Photographic Trust is a pioneering supporting organization that grants the Museum shared use of 1,321 photographs acquired by the Sacks over the past twelve years.


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