Walker Evans | A Life’s Work
Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin has recently displayed a collection of over 200 original prints from the years 1928 to 1974 by Walker Evans (1903–1975). The photographer documented in his sober documentary fashion a uniquely authentic picture of America. Evans is considered to be one of the great personalities of 20th century photography.
Walker Evans is most well-known first for his documentation of poverty in America during the Great Depression that began dominated the 1930s. The exhibition at the Martin-Gropius-Bau displays photos from this period but also others less known.
Visitors follow both Evans’ biography and the changing face of America, from the Great Depression to the onset of stability and business as usual: early impressions of the 1920s from the New York neighbourhood he lived in; portraits of his friends and fellow artists which give some indication of the ramified cultural ambience he inhabited; specimens of 19th century architecture that have blended into the evolving cultural life about them; picture cycles from Tahiti and Cuba; images of African sculptures and masks commissioned by the New York Museum of Modern Art; and numerous photographs taken in the 1930s in the rural south of the USA, which contrast starkly with the life-styles of those who may be seen promenading in the fashionable streets of cities like New York. The works are taken mostly from the considerable private collection of Clark and Joan Worswick, but also from various German collections.
The exhibition shows icons in the history of photography: portraits of farmer families, abandoned houses, vacant fabric buildings. In 1935 Evans was commissioned by the American Farm Security Administration (FSA) to document the life of the agricultural workers that were affected by the Great Depression. The resulting photographs that equally showed misery and poverty made Evans famous.
The show also highlights some of the photographer’s lesser known motifs dating from the 1940s until 1960s. These include works done for Fortune, the magazine founded by Henry Luce in 1930; pictures taken on trips to London from 1945 onwards for the periodical Architectural Forum; or during stays at Robert Frank’s Nova Scotia house in the late 1960s.
His work played a decisive role for what is called the “documentary style”. For decades, right up to the present, the prolific photographic oeuvre of Walker Evans has acquired an increasingly model character. With his sober documentary fashion he recorded a uniquely authentic picture of America, and like no other before him showed a particular feel for both the everyday and the subtle.
In addition to street scenes, American monuments and shop window displays far from the world of “big business”, examples of his significant subway photographs are to be seen, taken with a hidden camera. We also see interiors whose modest appointments tell of the life of those who live in them, pictures that inevitably recall Evans’ remark that “I do like to suggest people by absence”. Evans’ predilection for typography, advertising and mass-produced articles give rise to strangely fascinating shots which seem to anticipate the soon-to-emerge Pop Art and its assemblages.
The last photographic chapter comprises colour polaroids of compressed partial views, whether these be road markings or signs and lettering on buildings, which contrive to be concrete, abstract and revolutionary at once. They are trailblazers for a kind of colour photography that Evans had applied while working for Fortune and of which he had sometimes taken a critical view.