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Exhibition: ‘Walker Evans American Photographs’ at The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York

Exhibition dates: 19th July 2013 – 9th March 2014

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Picture this.

That is what Walker Evans does in his unique, forthright way. He shows you what he is seeing in a very straight forward way – directly, purposefully, in images where the artist seems to have no presence, no ego to impart. As artist Chris Killip observes, “Walker Evans is serious and smart and purposeful. He is trying to show you very clearly what he is seeing. It is very unadorned, as if nobody had taken the photograph. He conveys what is in front of him as clearly as possible.”1

But further than this, Evans presents us with a photographic version of Tomas Tranströmer’s poems which were seen by his English admirers in terms of “deep image”, a vaguely Jungian concept which suggests that “poetry could state absolute truths if only the images poets evoked welled up from deep enough sources uncontaminated by history and the follies of reason.”2

Evans direct, plainspoken images picture reality whilst hovering above the void – flirting with the duality of absolute truth and metaphysical inquiry. Whether Evans was consciously aware of this elemental antinomy is unlikely. Nevertheless we can read it in his images, even if we cannot read it in his prosaic words. You only have to look at the jet-black trees on a rainy day in Main Street, Saratoga Springs, New York (1931, below), or the justly famous Sharecropper’s Family, Hale County, Alabama (March 1936, below).

The people in the photograph have been posed but there is an intimate relationship here between the artist and his subjects. It is a loving photograph, for Evans cares for the dignity of these people in their naked condition. The grandmother wary of the camera with clasped hands, the weary husband, stick thin with glazed eyes, the young girl child with sallow stare, and the pensive mother with sleeping baby staring directly into camera, all of them dirty and in rags. In this absolute reality there is a nobility to these people and there, buried in the image, a relationship to the metaphysical essence of what it is to be human – the pictures of children on the back wall with text I can’t quite make out; the glorious arrangement of feet that run along the bottom of the image in all different angles and positions, the mothers folded under her almost collapsing with the weight of her burden; and what is that black shape prostrate on the floor? A rag? death? No! A cat.

The blackest most thinnest small cat that you ever seen, lingering on the edge of starvation, hovering in the void of existence.

As Thomas Sleigh writes of his first meeting with Tomas Tranströmer as he stepped from a small plane onto the ground, “I don’t mind large planes or middle-sized planes (his English was slightly gutteral, his intonations lilting in a mild brogue), but small planes – you feel too much of the air under you.”3

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And so with Evans if you know where to look.

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Dr Marcus Bunyan for the Art Blart blog

PS. For a fascinating insight into how these photographs were hung in the 1938 exhibition at MoMA see installation views of “Walker Evans American Photographs” at the Museum of Modern Art, New York City, 1938 on the ASX website. Notice the smallness of the photographs, their different sizes, the juxtaposition of disparate images, some double or triple hung one above the other, some printed in the centre of white sheets of photographic paper, others displayed on dark walls. The image that I describe above, Sharecropper’s Family, Hale County, Alabama (March 1936) is shown in an installation photograph below. Notice how small the image is and what affect this size of image has on the viewer, its shear concentration and intensity.

A friend Christopher Young tells me, “The install was done by Evans himself the night before and very chaotically. I love the poetry of the 1938 opening in that he got to the front door and couldn’t enter the show. He instead circled the block a number of times before going home…” Sounds like my early exhibitions. I could be found next door in a cafe playing pinball, I couldn’t face the crowd!

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walker-evans-install-b

walker-evans-install

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Installation views of “Walker Evans American Photographs” at the Museum of Modern Art, New York City, 1938 with at bottom right, Sharecropper’s Family, Hale County, Alabama (March 1936)
© Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Images used under conditions of fair use for the purpose of art criticism.

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Endnotes

1. Interview with Chris Killip about his exhibition Work at Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Renia Sofia, October 2013
2. Sleigh, Tom. “Too Much of the Air: Tomas Tranströmer,” 2005, on the Poets.org website [Online] Cited 15/02/2014
3. Ibid.,

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Many thankx to The Museum of Modern Art for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

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Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975) 'City Lunch Counter, New York' 1929

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Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975)
City Lunch Counter, New York
1929
Gelatin silver print
4 3/16 x 6 5/16″ (10.7 x 16.1 cm)
Gift of the photographer
© 2013 Walker Evans Archive, Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975) '42nd Street, New York' 1929

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Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975)
42nd Street, New York
1929
Gelatin silver print
4 1/4 x 6 1/2″ (10.8 x 16.6 cm)
Purchase
© 2013 Walker Evans Archive, Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975) 'Church Organ and Pews, Alabama' 1936

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Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975)
Church Organ and Pews, Alabama
1936
Gelatin silver print, printed 1970
7 9/16 x 9 1/8″ (19.2 x 23.2 cm)
Printer: James Dow
Mr. and Mrs. John Spencer Fund

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Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975) 'Sharecropper's Family, Hale County, Alabama' March 1936

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Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975)
Sharecropper’s Family, Hale County, Alabama
March 1936
Gelatin silver print
7 5/8 x 9 5/8″ (19.4 x 24.4 cm)
Gift of the Farm Security Administration

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Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975) 'Sharecropper's Family, Hale County, Alabama' (detail) March 1936

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Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975)
Sharecropper’s Family, Hale County, Alabama (detail)
March 1936
Gelatin silver print
7 5/8 x 9 5/8″ (19.4 x 24.4 cm)
Gift of the Farm Security Administration

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Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975) 'Sharecropper's Family, Hale County, Alabama' (detail) March 1936

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Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975)
Sharecropper’s Family, Hale County, Alabama (detail)
March 1936
Gelatin silver print
7 5/8 x 9 5/8″ (19.4 x 24.4 cm)
Gift of the Farm Security Administration

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“This installation celebrates the 75th anniversary of the first one-person photography exhibition in MoMA’s history, and the accompanying landmark publication, which established the potential of the photographer’s book as an indivisible work of art. Through these projects Walker Evans created a collective portrait of the eastern United States during a decade of profound transformation – one that coincided with the flood of everyday images, both still and moving, from an expanding mass culture, and the construction of a Modernist history of photography. As Lincoln Kirstein wrote in his essay for the book, “After looking at these pictures with all their clear, hideous and beautiful detail, their open insanity and pitiful grandeur, compare this vision of a continent as it is, not as it might be or as it was, with any other coherent vision that we have had since the war. What poet has said as much? What painter has shown as much? Only newspapers, the writers of popular music, the technicians of advertising and radio have in their blind energy accidentally, fortuitously, evoked for future historians such a powerful monument to our moment. And Evans’s work has, in addition, logic, continuity, climax, sense and perfection.”

Comprising approximately 60 prints from the Museum’s collection that were included in the 1938 exhibition or the accompanying publication, the current installation maintains the bipartite presentation of the originals; the first section portrays American society through images of its individuals and social environments, while the second consists of photographs of the relics that constitute expressions of an American cultural identity – the architecture of Main streets, factory towns, rural churches, and wooden houses. The pictures provide neither a coherent narrative nor a singular meaning, but rather create connections through the repetition and interplay of pictorial structures and subject matter. Its placement on the fourth floor of the Museum – between galleries featuring the paintings of Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Jackson Pollock, and Andy Warhol – underscores the continuation of prewar avant-garde practices in America and the unique legacy of Evans’s explorations of signs and symbols, commercial culture, and the vernacular. Their profound impact on not only photography, but also film, literature, and the visual arts, reverberates today.”

Text from The Museum of Modern Art website

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Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975) 'American Legionnaire' 1936

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Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975)
American Legionnaire
1936
Gelatin silver print
5 3/4 x 5 1/8″ (14.6 x 13 cm)
Gift of the Farm Security Administration

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Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975) 'Interior Detail of Portuguese House' 1930

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Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975)
Interior Detail of Portuguese House
1930
Gelatin silver print
7 15/16 x 6 1/8″ (20.2 x 15.5 cm)
Purchase
© 2013 Walker Evans Archive, Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975) 'Penny Picture Display, Savannah, Georgia' 1936

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Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975)
Penny Picture Display, Savannah, Georgia
1936
Gelatin silver print
8 5/8 x 6 15/16″ (21.9 x 17.6 cm)
Gift of Willard Van Dyke
© 2013 Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975) 'Main Street, Saratoga Springs, New York' 1931

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Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975)
Main Street, Saratoga Springs, New York
1931
Gelatin silver print
7 1/16 x 5 9/16″ (18 x 14.2 cm)
Gift of the photographer
© 2013 Walker Evans Archive, Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975) 'Negro Church, South Carolina' 1936

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Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975)
Negro Church, South Carolina
1936
Gelatin silver print
9 x 6 15/16″ (22.9 x 17.6cm)
Gift of Willard Van Dyke

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The Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53 Street
New York, NY 10019
T: (212) 708-9400

Opening hours:
Wednesday – Monday, 10.30 am – 5.30 pm
Friday, 10.30 am – 8.00 pm
Closed Tuesday

MOMA website

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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes the Art Blart blog which reviews exhibitions in Melbourne, Australia and posts exhibitions from around the world. He has a Dr of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne and is currently studying a Master of Art Curatorship at The University of Melbourne.

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