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Walker Evans’s Shoutout to the Ordinary People

New SFMOMA retrospective focuses on the iconic photographer’s everyday subjects.


Walker Evans, Truck and Sign. 1928-30; private collection, San Francisco; © Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

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Walker Evans, Resort Photographer at Work. 1941; collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles; © Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

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Walker Evans, Roadside Stand Near Birmingham/
Roadside Store Between Tuscaloosa and Greensboro, Alabama. 1936; collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles; © Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

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One of the first images confronting you upon entering Part II of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s latest blockbuster photo exhibition, Walker Evans, on view beginning Sept. 30 and running through Feb. 4, 2018, is a 1942 poster. The work shows a colorized Evans shot of an anonymous Middle American Main Street, cars and trucks parked at 45-degree angles on either side of the road. “This is America,” it blares across the top. “...where Main Street is bigger than Broadway. Where, through free enterprise, a free people have carved a great nation out of wilderness - This is your America... Keep it Free!”

The poster reads today like a piece of WWII-era propaganda, but in many ways it also synthesizes much of the Americana and everyday American “vernacular”—the people, images, and objects folks confront in day-to-day life—that Evans was so fascinated with, and that is at the thematic heart of this latest retrospective.

Evans (1903–1975) is widely regarded as one of the country’s preeminent 20th century photographers—one, says SFMOMA senior curator of photography Clément Chéroux, deserving of a renewed examination every 10 to 15 years. By that count, the museum is overdue for such an exhibition—its last Evans show came in 2000. Unlike previous retrospectives, however, this one, which Chéroux helped organize while still at the Centre Pompidou, in Paris, and then brought with him after relocating to San Francisco nine months ago, mostly eschews a chronological survey of his work and artistic progression in favor of thematic groupings: Portraits of hardscrabble sharecroppers in Alabama, middle-class pedestrians heading to work in Detroit, single-room churches in the South, decaying movie posters, utilitarian hand tools, rusted-out cars, modest shop window displays, dingy roadside stands, comely main streets.

Of those, certainly the most iconic shot is Evans’s portrait Allie Mae Burroughs, Wife of a Cotton Sharecropper, Hale County, Alabama (1936), lent to the museum by San Francisco’s Pier 24 Photography. The image shows Burroughs, whose family Evans and writer James Agee visited while working on an aborted magazine story about rural sharecroppers, standing against a wooden backdrop. Her rugged features and hardened expression have in the intervening years come to represent the poverty of the Great Depression. In this exhibition, the image is set adjacent to an another frame from the same shoot. One shows Burroughs with a slight smile; in the other, her expression is colder, as she bites her lower lip. Organizers of the show also unearthed an interview Burroughs conducted in the 1970s describing Evans’s visit to her home, and present it here playing in a loop, her deep-south drawl creating an even more visceral portrait of the woman.

For this show, the museum’s entire third-floor Pritzker Center for Photography has been given over to Evans; Part I is in the “Snohetta” side of the building, and focuses on the subjects of Evans’s work. Part II is housed in the museum’s older wing, and is dedicated to the “vernacular methods”—his experiments with non-artistic styles, including catalog and product shots; architectural photography; postcards. In putting the exhibition together, Chéroux says he visited some 40 collections of Evans’s work and reviewed 10,000 images, including from the Met in New York, the Getty, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Modern Art, and others, as well as several private collectors. (The show ended up with 35 different lenders.) The show includes 400 pieces, 300 of which are original prints. Another 100 items are from Evans’s collection of postcards, magazines, posters, and other ephemera. The show also includes several spreads of Evans’s work with Time and Fortune; Evans was responsible for not only his photos, but also the design and layout of the pages, and the accompanying text.

The sheer volume of works on display here make Walker Evans deserving of (and perhaps require) a follow-up visit, and add to the sense that the museum has further distinguished itself from its peers in the field of photography. Following last fall’s exhibition of Anthony Hernandez photos, the New York Times suggested SFMOMA may have supplanted the New York MOMA as having the nation’s premier showcase for photography.

Chéroux says that’s a reflection of the city as a whole—he points out that the museum has been on the vanguard of the photo medium from its inception in the 1930s. “I think the best collectors are in San Francisco,” he says. “That’s something I discovered when I arrived. My interest in coming to this museum is because I’m really fascinated with this interest in photography we find in this city, and I want to do a lot more important shows at the museum.”


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