God, we are told, loved the common man; the proof is that he made so many of them.
America’s greatest photographer, Walker Evans, also loved the common man, most likely because he was not one of them.
San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art has created a monumental retrospective of Evans’ work, from his earliest self-portraits in Paris to his men and women in the street, his photography of farmers, of churches, and then later works for Fortune Magazine.
The exhibition is open through February 4.
Evans was born to privilege in St. Louis in 1901. After attending private schools in New England, he tried college for a year, found it wanting, and began an uncommon life.
He traveled first to New York, where he indulged his passion for literature by hanging out in the New York Public Library.
He then went to Paris, where he caroused with the great Modernist artists of the day, who influenced his vision once he declared himself a photographer.
From the time that a camera was first thrust in Evans’ hands, he knew that this was what he wanted to do with his life.
He drank with Hemingway in Havana, photographing scenes of unrest, and smuggling those photographs back to the United States.
He spent the rest of his long life photographing not great scenes in nature like Ansel Adams, but regular folks, storefronts, small Southern churches, and anything else that caught his eye.
Just as Hemingway bridged the gap from stuffy 19th century literature to modern fiction, so Evans created the link between the formal photography that we associate with the late 19th century and realistic photography of the mid-20th century.
Evans would set up a camera on Chicago street corners and snap photos of random passersby, or he would smuggle a camera under his coat and take photos, then at illegal activity, inside New York subway trains.
He caught people as they were, and his artfulness consisted, as he said, as studiously avoiding anything like obvious artfulness in his work.
His subjects were what they were—attractive or average, middle class or poor, but above all, and at all times, real.
Evans is best known for the work he did photographing migrant farmers and their families during the Great Depression. He actually got a grant from the federal government to take photos of farm folks in order to show that government programs to support them were effective.
Once on the scene, Evans discarded any idea of creating government propaganda and instead created haunting, unforgettable images of the farmers, their spouses, their small children, and their ramshackle homes.
The debate lingers whether he captured them in their dignity or tore it from them by presenting them in such a realistic light.
However you come out on that one, it’s inarguable that Evans is the premier visual chronicler of the first half of the American century, when we strove as a nation to become bigger, better, and more successful, with much of that success coming on the backs of the working poor.
An accomplished writer as well as a photographer, Evans worked for Time Life for years, occasionally contributing photo essays, often contributing writing, and otherwise depicting America in all its simplicity and diversity.
Evans died in 1975, and he enjoyed a new run of fame in the years immediately after his death, with a major exhibition of his work at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
Now SFMOMA has resurrected the reputation of the great photographer, in an exhibit so large that it still goes over across two huge sets of galleries.
You also will find a video of Evans talking about his approach to photography and the work of some of his early contemporaries, people who gave direction to his nascent artistic vision.
If you’re going to San Francisco, make sure you visit the Evans exhibition at SFMOMA.
You’ll come face to face with an America long gone, but thanks to Evans’ keen eye, never to be forgotten.
For further information, https://www.sfmoma.org/exhibition/walker-evans.