Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Walker Evans’ early influences

By: Michelle Murdock, Curator of Exhibitions

Last time we set the stage for learning about the new perspective on Walker Evans’ photographs presented in our new exhibition Walker Evans: Carbon and Silver. This time, we’ll briefly look at Evans’ early artistic life and the beginning of his work for President Roosevelt’s Farm Security Administration in 1935 and 1936.

Evans was born into middle-class comfort in St. Louis, Missouri and grew up in an elite suburb of Chicago, where his father worked as an advertising writer. As a young man he developed a love of literature, which became a dominant reservoir for his aesthetic sense.

Like many expatriates with literary hopes, Evans traveled to France in 1926. There he discovered the frustrations of writing, especially in his over-awe of writers James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. But, his first serious snapshots came from that trip.
Evans returned to New York in the spring of 1927 and began to teach himself the basics of photography. Two major events shaped his emerging style. One was a mutual rejection involving Alfred Steiglitz and his advocacy of fine art photography. Second was his introduction to the work of Eugène Atget, whose dispassionate record of Paris streets matched Evans’ own anti-aesthetic vision. Evans’ style also grew from the muscular, artless imagery of the newsreel, the tabloid, and the work of anonymous postcard photographers. In all these works he found raw power and a lack of artistic pretension that would shape his own works.
In 1933 Evans tested this approach in Cuba, where he made photographs to accompany the highly political text for Carleton Beals’ book The Crime of Cuba. This experience was perfect preparation for his greatest body of work—documenting the effects of the Great Depression on rural families for the Farm Security Administration in 1935 and 1936. While the FSA mission was to generate political propaganda reinforcing President Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, Evans resisted anything political. After recognizing the futility of opposition, he compromised and seized the opportunity, producing work that both satisfied his own vision and met many of the job’s demands. Evans later collaborated with the writer James Agee on a book centered around his work for the FSA. The 1941 book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men combined an impassioned text by Agee with Evans’cool and distanced images serving as counterpoint.The exhibition Walker Evans: Carbon and Silver features nearly 100 photographs from his 1935-1936 FSA work that exemplify his meticulous, detailed and honest photojournalistic style.

Text provided by guest curator, John Hill.
This exhibition is made possible in part by The Lisette Model Foundation and The Max and Victoria Dreyfus Foundation, Inc.

Walker Evans: Carbon and Silver is on view through December 31, 2009.

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