Walker Evans

Shotgun Review

Walker Evans

By Shotgun Reviews October 31, 2017

Shotgun Reviews are an open forum where we invite the international art community to contribute timely, short-format responses to an exhibition or event. If you are interested in submitting a Shotgun Review, please click this link for more information. In this Shotgun Review, Max Blue reviews Walker Evans at SFMOMA.

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The comprehensive Walker Evans retrospective at SFMOMA follows the same pilgrimage that Evans himself made in the late 1920s, from Paris to the U.S.1 Evans, a U.S. citizen, spent the latter part of his college days in Paris, studying at the Sorbonne, where he became interested in the surrealists and photography.2 Upon returning to America, he began his career in earnest, creating photographs deeply American in subject matter, and with a clear surrealist influence. The relationship between this surreal way of seeing and the American landscape is consistent throughout this work, most prevalent in his way of photographing the landscape as a sort of collage, highlighting the pervasive nature of mass images already present in the everyday vernacular.

Walker Evans. Penny Picture Display, Savannah, 1936; gelatin silver print; Pilara Foundation Collection; © Walker Evans Archive, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Evans saw American society's common tongue as industry, labor, agriculture, and the price of a hotdog or a gallon of gasoline at a roadside stand—this became his subject matter, what he saw as the vernacular of the times. Surrealism, as the successor of Dada, can be seen in Evans’s attraction to the collage-like effect of wheat-paste advertisements on the walls of midcentury America, the jumble of words on a storefront, and the interplay of the floating lights of electric signage on a city street.

His photographs, collage-like themselves, are illustrative of a culture not only in the upheaval of modernity, but literally being encroached upon by billboard and wheat-paste advertising. Penny Picture Display, Savannah (1936) arguably acts as documentation of a ready-made collage—one made to advertise a photo booth’s services, rather than with artistic expression in mind. Evans’s focus on product-oriented imagery suggests early strains of pop art, with one significant difference: Evans produced his photographs largely for the Farm Security Administration (which hired him to document Depression-era land), not for the art market.3

Walker Evans. Truck and Sign, 1928–30; gelatin silver print; private collection, San Francisco; © Walker Evans Archive, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The exhibition’s lesson plan, so to speak, is an exploration of the French and American vernacular of surrealism and industrial capitalism (or, perhaps, of the American vernacular as surreal in its very nature). Walker Evans prompts viewers to consider, too, how much—or little—these languages have changed. This retrospective invites viewers to see ourselves today as continual subjects of the society he photographed. As residents of a culture heavily steeped in imagery and advertisements, now more than ever, we are speakers of the language he defined in his work.

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Max Blue is in his final year at San Francisco Art Institute, working toward a BA in the History & Theory of Contemporary Art, with a minor in Photography. He is a writer of criticism, fiction, and poetry.

Walker Evans is on view at SFMOMA in San Francisco through February 4, 2018.

Notes

  1. The exhibition was organized in collaboration with, and in April 2017 first opened at, the Centre Pompidou in Paris, France.
  2. “Walker Evans 1903–1975,” The Met's Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, accessed October 18, 2017, http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/evan/hd_evan.htm
  3. Beaumont Newhall, The History of Photography (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1964).

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