Walker Evans: Decade by Decade (Review)

Famed photographer's career gets revised in Cincinnati Art Museum exhibit

Cincinnati Art Museum’s Walker Evans: Decade by Decade opens with a rather bold statement that Evans is “probably the single greatest American photographer ever to have worked in the 20th century.”

An introduction like that certainly raises the stakes for an exhibition. I don’t feel that, taken alone, the show proves he was the “single greatest” of the 20th century, but I also don’t believe that is the show’s objective. Such a grand introduction is misleading.

The CAM show certainly expands the popular image of Evans, presenting bodies of photographs not familiar to most viewers.

He's so connected with his work for the Resettlement Administration during the Great Depression that many of his photographs from later periods have been largely overlooked.

Only a third of the exhibition features Evans’ 1930s photographs. Most of the show, which encompasses a staggering number of images, highlights an artist who developed a keen eye and original style over a 40-year-plus career. It presents a photographer who removed himself as much as possible from his images with the desire to record unmediated slices of American life and culture.

For that reason, the show doesn't provide the best introduction to Evans’ work for the uninitiated, as it is not a selection of “greatest hits.” The bulk of the voluminous exhibition was culled from a single, largely unseen private collection by CAM’s Curator of Photography James Crump, who also authored the corresponding catalogue. (He was just named the museum’s chief curator.)

Evans aficionados will likely enjoy seeing unexpected, rarely seen works such as a series from Tahiti that Evans thought was not up to standard, a group of photographs recording African art for a Museum of Modern Art catalogue or a set of modernist color Polaroids. Their inclusion, however, could puzzle those anticipating Evans’ ironic images of 1930s advertising signs or moving portraits of tenant farmers.

That being said, the show is not without its poignant moments. Some of the most compelling are Evans’ photographs of people. Often referred to as portraits, they don’t always feel as such. While Evans shot many portraits of friends (some of the most interesting in the show are those of his benefactor Lincoln Kirstein and fellow photographers Berenice Abbot and Robert Frank), he also once described his interest in people “as part of the pictures and as themselves, but anonymous.” Perhaps the best examples of this are his subway photos, of which there are a few in the exhibition.

In the late 1930s, Evans hid a camera inside his coat and a shutter release inside his sleeve to shoot completely candid photographs of people riding the subway. While he attempted to be as impersonal as possible by avoiding interaction with his subjects, the images are remarkable for their expression of human psychology.

Evans was not interested in social commentary and refused to create propaganda for the government’s New Deal. The 1930s section of the show includes subject matter we’d expect — rows of miners’ houses, groups of men milling about in public squares and women with children on front porches. But we don’t really understand how Evans felt about it.

He effectively masked his opinion for the sake of documentation. As a group, these Depression photographs record an era in American history, but taken individually the images are vague, ambiguous and even mysterious.

A few gems beg interpretation, such as “Boy and Woman, Possibly French Quarter, New Orleans, Louisiana,” from 1935. A young white boy is visible in the bottom left corner, his eyes askance. An African-American woman stands on the right, wearing a white cap that probably indicates she is a housekeeper. She is framed by the dark rectangle of a doorway, while the boy is situated before a bright background of the house’s siding. The white, straight line of the doorjamb draws a barrier between them, directly down the center of the image.

I couldn’t help but wonder if Evans was making a statement about the divide between race and class. He strove to be as unconcerned as possible, but no photographer can remove himself or herself entirely — he still chose his subjects, framed them and opened the shutter at a specific moment.

Late in his life, Evans resented the fact that most people remembered him only for his Depression Era photos, which comprised just one decade of his long career. This is totally understandable, especially since the photos from the 1960s and early 1970s are among the most notable in the exhibition. In these late pictures, it’s as if Evans discovered light and its ability to create a mood.

For example, in “Kitchen Interior, Maine,” sunlight filters in through sheer curtains to bathe a sparse interior with diffused light. While the image is just as documentary as earlier ones, it becomes an almost spiritual meditation. I longed to read more about these late photographs, but the last 90 or so works are presented with no explanatory text. It’s as if, reflecting the spirit of Evans’ images, the exhibition provides as little guidance to interpreting these late photos as possible.

If you’re expecting to see the kind of ironic or moving photographs for which Evans is widely known, there are some. The bulk of the show, however, revises our expectations of the photographer and reveals a prolific documentarian whose works are often enigmatic and detached.

WALKER EVANS: DECADE BY DECADE runs through Sept. 5 at the Cincinnati Art Museum. Get show and CAM details here.

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