Walker Evans American Photographs at the MoMA

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My first encounter with the work of Walker Evans was, I think, the most mind-bending revelation I’ve ever had with regard to expanding my concepts of the possibilities of photography. Until then, my personal experience of attempting “serious” photography had been shooting landscapes and nature, and my chief inspiration was the highly colorful Fuji Velvia work of the great Galen Rowell. Could there be anything else?

Then one day, must have been in the late 1990s, my son suggested that we go and check out a Walker Evans exhibit that was running in NYC. So we did. And thereby entered an entirely new artistic world. Art? Yes. Evans’s work is highly documentary and his subject matter disarmingly ordinary, but for all that, he thought carefully about his compositions and the use of light and dark. At that exhibit several years ago, what knocked me over the head most was the ordinariness of his subjects. Here weren’t spectacular landscapes, mountains, waterfalls, but plain regular people, plain regular buildings, including gas stations and shacks. All in monochrome.

My son commented on this ordinariness, “Who today would ever think of just photographing a Stewart’s Shop?” (For those of you who don’t live in upstate New York, think 7-/11, Cumberland Farms, Wawa.) That remark stuck in the back of my head for years and eventually was the catalyst for my own work photographing old buildings—stores, homes, resorts, whether repurposed or ruins. Whether I’ve yet to capture successfully the iconic Stewart’s Shop remains to be seen, though I’m trying.

At the latest Walker Evans exhibit, Walker Evans American Photographs now on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, it was Evans’s artistic approach that made me take notice. As I said above, he clearly thought out his compositions; just because his subject matter was ordinary, everyday life didn’t mean that he just picked up the camera and clicked. Just as the stunning Ansel Adams show at the Peabody-Essex Museum in Salem, MA in 2012 revealed to me the important roles of light and dark in Adams’ compositions, so this Evans show did the same for the kinds of subjects he worked with.

Walker Evans American Photographs commemorates the 75th anniversary of the first one-person photography exhibition in MoMA’s history as well as the accompanying publication, which established the potential of the photographer’s book as an indivisible work of art. Here is MoMA’s own description: “Through these projects Walker Evans created a collective portrait of the eastern United States during a decade of profound transformation—one that coincided with the flood of everyday images, both still and moving, from an expanding mass culture, and the construction of a Modernist history of photography.”

The exhibit includes approximately sixty prints from MoMA’s collection that were included in the 1938 exhibition or in the accompanying landmark publication. Obviously I can’t reproduce his work here, but if you click this link you’ll see a good selection of them. One of my favorites is the fish shack, which shows Evans at his best, making sense of those wonderfully busy places and reminding me of similar buildings in New England or, in one case, of a beloved smoked fish shack on the Baltic coast in northern Sweden.  Walker Evans American Photographs is running until March 9.  Here are further details. If you are anywhere in or near NYC, don’t miss it.

Oh, the photo at the top? Zabar’s, one of NYC’s most amazing food emporia. I took this photo the same day. Again, if you’re in the city for the Evans exhibit (or any other reason), don’t miss Zabar’s, especially if you’re a cheese aficionado.

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