Walker Evans is the Old Master photographer most frequently studied by young photographers today. Images from his 1936 series depicting three tenant farmer families in Alabama are in our history books and his architectural studies from that era are also familiar classics, but the whole range of his work is much broader, including a variety of experiments and enigmas. Now at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is a vast exhibition surveying his work from his tentative beginnings in 1927 until his health failed in 1974.
His best-known work was done with an 8 by 10 inch view camera on a tripod, a procedure requiring time and patience but one that allowed him to make subtle adjustments to get exactly the effect he wanted. When he photographed Allie May Borroughs, the wife of the share-cropper family he stayed with for several weeks, he placed her in front of the weather-beaten clapboards of their shack, looking directly at her as she stares into the camera. He made four negatives, with slight variations of expression. The one shown now has her head slightly tilted, her lips pursed, her eyes tightened and her brow wrinkled with a suggestion of concern.
This is the image he chose to include in the book he and James Agee produced, “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” because the disturbing quality suits that purpose. A series of powerful photographs like this came first, without caption or explanation, and then the long and complex text by Agee describing the habitat of these people, their struggles and their determination to survive despite drought and the Depression. Photographs and text were conceived as equal partners in expression and the score of photographs here from that project will draw the visitor’s searching and sympathetic study, but remain inevitably incomplete without Agee’s text.
While planning these carefully composed studies of the people and of their shacks Evans also made snapshots with a Leica, which served him almost as a sketch pad for his instantaneous perception; three are in the exhibition as more casual records of the families. They contribute importantly to what is the most complete statement on the human condition in all of Evans’ work, for this series is the only time he penetrated so deeply into the personalities of specific individuals. While working with Agee that was necessary, but otherwise Evans preferred to be a detached observer.
In 1929, when he was growing dissatisfied with his attempts to be a writer, and coming to concentrate on photography, he borrowed a Leica and took it out into the streets of Manhattan, mostly to make tilted shots of skyscrapers and other scenery. He was trying his hand at the New Vision style from Germany, verging on abstraction. But in the midst of these he took one picture of a black woman wearing a fur-trimmed coat standing next to the steps leading up to the El; he called it, laconically, “42nd St., 1929.”
It is a memorable early example of street photography, a kind of selective freezing of something from the passing scene, a technique he returned to frequently. Perhaps the best known example is the long series on people riding the New York subways, which he began in 1938; for these he hid his Leica under his overcoat and rigged a cable release through his sleeve, catching people unaware, lost in their thoughts. In 1946 in Detroit he held a Rolleiflex at waist level and snapped half-length shots of people passing by at the end of the working day for a spread in Fortune magazine entitled “Labor Anonymous.” This kind of work stimulated many photographers in more recent decades, beginning with his young friend Robert Frank.
While the casual always intrigued Evans (and his followers) it is his manipulation of the permanent that is his own most enduring legacy. He went to Bethlehem, Penn., in 1935 to document the effect of the Depression and made a photograph in a graveyard that is deceptively simple. In the foreground is a large stone cross, in the middle ground a row of worker’s housing with not a soul in sight, and in the distance the smoke stacks of the steel mills with no smoke, for they are not operating. This photograph is a complete metaphor for the Depression.
But the power of this famous photograph comes from the careful manipulation of the two-dimensional composition, isolating and juxtaposing the cross at the left, the housing at the right, and the steelworks above, all exactly parallel to the picture plane. This was achieved by using the maximum flexibility of the big view camera. The film had to be parallel to the cross and housing to maintain the planar composition, but to separate these essential features Evans had to move to the right of the cross and then shift the lens to the left as far as it would go.
Careful inspection of the railing that separates the two houses at the right edge reveals that the camera was exactly opposite the door at the right edge of the picture. As a result of this distorted perspective we see the side of the cross as well as the front, and therefore it stands out more effectively as a solid object. Evans frequently used this trick in his architectural studies, especially to gain a frontal view of a facade and still show the lettering on a sign projecting straight out from the facade.
Indeed lettering and signs or posters always fascinated Evans and were a central theme in his recording the vernacular in American life; sometimes there was irony in his selection or juxtaposition, sometimes humor, as in an early photograph of men loading on a truck an enormous illuminated sign reading DAMAGED. Sometimes it is simple delight in the commonplace, for he collected old signs, some of which are in the exhibition. In his last years, when he lacked the strength to handle the big camera and tripod, he took up the Polaroid SX70 as a quick way of collecting images and photographed many signs, even abstracting two or three letters to build up a sort of alphabet among these small color prints. He was a collector of images at heart, some direct, some enigmatic. There is always food for thought in what he selected as finished work. It may not be easy to explain but it always seems exactly right.