Lucidity on Fire

I love that there's a book on Walker Evans titled The Hungry Eye because the general mood of his show at the Met is one of searching, restless omnivorousness. There's that and the kind of perfection that Evans achieved with such stunning frequency, especially between 1931, when he photographed a curving street on a rainy day in Saratoga Springs, and 1939, when he went underground, into the New York subway, surreptitiously photographing fellow passengers as they sat across from this man with a camera concealed beneath his coat. Evans was the man on the street par excellence, less an artist than a medium who gives himself over to his subjects without ever letting go.

Whether working fast with a 35mm camera or slow with an 8x10, Evans captured the wounded, striving, uncertain soul of America in the 1930s, and set it down with one of the most detached but mindful touches in photographic history. Witness the sun-bleached facades and apparently deserted cities and towns; see the dilapidated Victorian mansions, decaying signs, derelicts asleep in New York doorways, a "Negro" barbershop in Atlanta, an auto graveyard in Pennsylvania, countless portraits in a photographer's studio window, or the gut-wrenching, paradigm-shifting series, made in the summer of 1936, of three destitute tenant-farmer families in Hale County, Alabama (published alongside James Agee's text in the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men). Neither socially committed nor apathetic, this is purity with heat, with heart—lucidity on fire.

Not only do these perfect pictures of an imperfect world form the ectoplasmic collective dream of America in the 1930s, they mark a dividing point between what we might call old-school photography and something modern. When Evans picked up a camera in the 1920s, the big names were Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen. Initially, Evans emulated these modernists in little shadow self-portraits and street scenes taken from oblique angles. By 1930, he knew his forebears were artists like Eugène Atget, Mathew Brady, Paul Strand, and August Sander—even vernacular postcard photography. In the words of MOMA's former photo czar John Szarkowski, Stieglitz had become "deplorable for his artiness, Steichen for his commercialism."

One of the first photographs of the period we live in now: a 1938 Evans subway photo
photo: Walker Evans (Metropolitan Museum of Art/Princeton University Press)
One of the first photographs of the period we live in now: a 1938 Evans subway photo

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Walker Evans
Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 Fifth Avenue
Through May 14

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What should be a majestic exhibition unfolds instead in abbreviated stages. There are 175 pictures here, but the show feels piecemeal. There aren't enough early-'30s Havana pictures, there are only two of the brutally beautiful 1946 Chicago street shots, and the dearth of images made in and around New Orleans in 1935 denies us the opportunity to see him warming up for the Hale County masterpieces. This is due partly to the disjointed configuration of the Met's galleries and partly to the unavailability of nearly 60 images owned by MOMA and currently included in "Walker Evans & Company" (see below), which goes further to establish Evans as the genius progenitor that he is. At the Met, sections feel truncated, labels barge in, titles mislead. Under "The South," for example, we see several pictures from Pennsylvania. The press release claims this is "the first comprehensive Evans retrospective," though MOMA mounted an Evans survey in 1971 that featured 202 pictures, and Atlanta's High Museum presented an exhibition in 1998 that included the late Polaroids. Still, this show delivers.

In the first gallery, we see Evans finding his distinctive nonstyle and honing his irony in pictures of a rumpled couple at Coney Island and a sign that says DAMAGED being loaded onto a truck—a Depression gestalt zap. The following gallery gives us Evans in '30s cruise mode. Check out an interior of a Louisiana plantation in which a slightly off-center composition captures Southern luster in decay, or the magnificent 1936 Negro Church, South Carolina, a lesson in pure frontality. The third gallery, devoted almost entirely to Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, is staggering.

Conventional wisdom says the show should now wind down. Even MOMA's photography curator, Peter Galassi, who is enormously insightful about Evans, has written that "his essential achievement was complete by 1941." But Jeff L. Rosenheim, this exhibition's curator, makes a case for the late work.

He gives us 11 New York subway portraits (which were, in fact, completed in 1941). Each a study in simple grandeur, these faces invite you into private universes of pensive splendor. For me, these are among the first photographs of the period we live in now—simple, straightforward, and bottomless. Across from these are six arresting pedestrian portraits made in Detroit in 1946 and two of the awesome Chicago pictures. Next, after four stately tool portraits Evans made for Fortune(between 1934 and 1965, he contributed more than 400 photographs to the magazine), Rosenheim springs a surprise.

Even though Evans once dismissed color as "vulgar," he made over 10,000 color transparencies. Taken from passing trains, on deserted streets, outside factories, or along railroad tracks, these images (though only seen on a video monitor) are breathtakingly contemporary and point to photographers like William Eggleston, Stephen Shore, and Robert Adams.

But Evans wasn't finished. In 1973, two years before his death, he picked up the newly invented SX-70 Polaroid camera. In these last pictures we see him revisiting earlier obsessions. Concentrated images of his youth pass before our eyes: signs, faces, buildings. Evans created a style for the ages, one that countless artists have built upon; in these final images he's at play and at peace.

 
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