Eyes wide open
Walker Evans' 50 years of images fill new exhibition at Cantor Arts Center
— Walker Evans, 1960
Walker Evans lived his 71 years with his eyes wide open.
The revered American photographer is best known for his definitive images of families in the Great Depression: the filthy bare feet and weary eyes, the splintered floors and weathered metal bed frames. The haunting, sickly children.
His career also extended far beyond this era. Evans (1903-1975) was a photographer for five decades, shooting with pocket cameras, view cameras and Polaroids. His documentary style, whether applied to the Brooklyn Bridge in the '20s or road signs in the '70s, is still influential. A new show at Stanford's Cantor Arts Center gives visitors an unusually abundant overview of Evans' oeuvre.
Hung on plain, pale walls with only the occasional quote for company (including the one above), the works must speak for themselves. Abner Nolan, manager of the Elizabeth and Robert J. Fisher collection, which owns the photos, urges museum visitors to take their time.
People usually notice the subject of an Evans photo first, Nolan said at the exhibition opening on Feb. 1. If they look longer, he believes they'll appreciate the composition, the straightforward organization, the way that Evans seemingly always knew where to stand.
"The genius of Evans ... does not reveal itself easily," Nolan said. He later added that Evans showed viewers that "photography could operate as a kind of literary document.
"It had its own strength of conviction."
To be sure, the subject matter is often compelling. The heart of the exhibition is Evans' work during the Depression. "The 18-month stretch between 1935 and 1937 was arguably his best work," Nolan said.
Evans, who had dropped out of Williams College in Massachusetts and tried to be a writer in Paris, began working for the New Deal's Resettlement Administration in 1935, photographing the poor in the countryside. The following year, Fortune magazine sent Evans and the writer James Agee to Alabama to do a story on white tenant farmers.
This was the story of Evans' life. Though the magazine never ran the article, the photos and writing about the lives of three poverty-stricken sharecroppers and their families became the 1941 book "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men." Panned upon its release, the book gained new life during the Civil Rights Movement and is now widely respected.
Many of the "Famous Men" photos are now at the Cantor, including the iconic portraits of Floyd Burroughs and his wife, Allie Mae. Both have narrow eyes and creases of worry between their eyebrows. Allie Mae seems completely closed off, while Floyd has a flicker in his deep eyes that makes him seem as though he might tell you his sad story if you asked the right question.
Nearby is the 1936 photo "Main Street, Selma, Alabama," replete with shadowed, empty storefronts. In photos of families, clothes are ragged, just barely holding together. If the people don't always seem completely at ease with the camera, they don't appear anxious, either.
In the introduction to the 1998 edition of "Famous Men," the journalist John Hersey wrote: "Evans ... would take his picture only when they were at ease and fully conscious of the camera eye staring straight at them, at home in their setting and in command of themselves. He bestowed on the objects in the families' homes a similar tact and respect, as if things too had the right to defend themselves against the lens. The resulting photographs did not propagandize squalor; they gave full scope to the timeless dignity, beauty and pain of rounded lives."
Other famous series by Evans are also represented in the exhibition, which was curated by Jeff L. Rosenheim of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. One is Evans' "subway series," which he shot from 1938 through 1941 and published in the monograph "Many Are Called."
To capture the portraits, Evans hid a camera in his coat from the anonymous passengers. They are as much a slice of the city commute as "Famous Men" is of rural poverty. Their faces show fatigue, boredom, curiosity; sometimes nothing at all.
A 1962 issue of Harper's Bazaar displayed in the exhibition includes a quote from Evans: "These pictures were made twenty years ago and deliberately preserved from publication. As it happens, you don't see among them the face of a judge or a senator or a bank president. What you do see is at once sobering, startling and obvious; these are the ladies and gentlemen of the jury."
The Cantor show also includes some of Evans' earlier photos: New York streets filled with vintage cars, men carrying a giant sign that reads "Damaged," tiny images of the Brooklyn Bridge soaring into the sky.
In Evans' final years, he turned to making Polaroid prints, in part because darkroom work can be grueling, Nolan said. Rarely exhibited, they line the back wall of the gallery, small squares that recall his early work in their size.
They're nibbles of humanity, of road signs and fire hydrants. In one from the early '70s, red letters spell out "NO GUNING" on a wooden sign. All have the weathered, decades-old colors that people today strive for with their Hipstamatic iPhone apps.
With all of the faces that Walker Evans photographed, there's one that viewers often don't see: his own. In this show, one wall is devoted to a trio of self-portraits from his early life in France. In the two taken in a flat in Paris, Evans' face is half in darkness. The other, shot in Juan-les-Pins, is unusual in that Evans has simply photographed his own shadow.
Even so, the photo is evocative, clearly capturing the silhouette of this 22-year-old in all his youth and newness: slight neck, small tuft of hair sticking up in back. A young man with so much ahead of him, so much to see.
What: An exhibition of more than 100 photos by the American photographer Walker Evans
Where: The Cantor Arts Center, Stanford University
When: Through April 8. The museum is open Wednesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Thursdays until 8 p.m.
Info: Several free programs are planned, including a book discussion on "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men," led by Stanford English department chair Gavin Jones at 1 p.m. Feb. 25; and an art talk on Evans' work led by master's candidate Adam Katseff at 2 p.m. March 9. Go to museum.stanford.edu or call 650-723-4177.