October 1, 2011 through January 29, 2012
The exhibition is made possible through the generous support of The Mapplethope Foundation, the Connecticut Humanities Council, the Connecticut Commission on Culture and Tourism, and a group of individuals and restricted funds that are helping to advance our mission through special exhibitions.
Discover more about Walker Evans through the companion website.
The Exacting Eye of Walker Evans presents an exhibition that uses new scholarship to examine the post-Depression era work of photographer Walker Evans. Evans (1903–1975) captured a place in American social, cultural, and artistic history with his unforgettable images of the Great Depression. The photographs, particularly those of rural Southern sharecroppers, launched his career and remain among the most iconic images of American art. His work in ensuing years, however, has been largely overlooked. This exhibition recovers Evans’ post-Depression work by tracing the thread of his recurring artistic themes, in the process revealing images of economic hard times, capturing the essence of local identity, and discovering the beauty in common things through the 1940s, 50s, 60s, and 70s. New research delves into his career and the artist’s life in Connecticut. No exhibition has yet addressed these decades, which Evans spent in the state as a teacher at Yale and resident of Lyme.
Evans sometimes called his work “lyric documentary,” presenting images that purport to be more or less “straight photography” but which have been captured, edited, and printed with a high degree of sensitivity to their aesthetic representations. In the guise of a documentarian he took liberties with his subject, displaying a keen awareness of the viewer’s experience of his photographs. His purposefulness as creator, editor, and collector-curator is illustrated through over 150 photographs and artifacts, borrowed from private collections, from his first endeavors with a camera to his final photographs in 1974.
Gelatin silver prints of his work for the Farm Security Administration in 1935-36 are exhibited with an invitation to re-experience these familiar images of poverty in the rural South through new, enlarged inkjet prints. The prints were produced under the direction of John T. Hill, the former executor of the Estate of Walker Evans and co-curator of the exhibition along with the Museum's Assistant Curator Amanda Burdan. Shown at large scale (some over 4 feet wide), these photos reveal Evans’s eye for both the grit and poetry of daily life. A variety of photographic print processes are compared, exploring the special traits of each. Evans’s sensitivity to the visual consequences of printing decisions is a theme of the exhibition. Portfolios assembled and printed in the 1970s under Evans’ close supervision present the photographer’s own retrospective thinking about his career.
Evans and the
The significance of published images in establishing and maintaining Evans’s reputation and his role as a photographs is also addressed. His most highly acclaimed work, 1941’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, in which Evans’ imagery was paired with the words of renowned writer James Agee, was hailed by the New York Public Library as one of the most influential books of the 20th century. From the 1940s into the 1960s, Evans worked for Fortune magazine as a photo editor, again coupling his images with short essays he wrote on a broad array of themes and subjects in American life. A number of important editions, both periodicals and portfolios, are displayed, including the April 1962 Fortune magazine essay “The Auto Junkyard,” which was photographed in Lyme, Connecticut. In these editions the photographer can be observed as the consummate editor, carefully controlling the viewer’s experience of his subject.
The Beauty of the Common Object
Evans aesthetically considered the ordinary experiences of American life, another significant theme over his decades-long career. The exhibition looks at the photographer’s practice of collecting common things, both actual objects and their images, and curating these collections in personal displays throughout his home. Several objects from Evans' personal collection will be on view, some never before publically exhibited. From his collections of signs, postcards, driftwood, and other objects to his late engagement with the “common tool” of the Polaroid SX-70, Evans looked with rigor at everyday objects and scenes, selecting and recasting them as works of art.
Images on Demand
When Polaroid developed the first instant print cameras, Evans was an early adopter—keeping one close at hand to document scenes and people from his daily life. He produced more than 2,500 instant color prints in the final years of his life, a rotating selection of which will be on view in the exhibition. At a time when Evans’s photographic output had all but ceased, the new camera reinvigorated him. “I bought that thing as a toy, and I took it as kind of a challenge,” Evans said. The Polaroid prints, seemingly so different in style and aesthetic quality from his work of the 1930s, discouraged serious scholarly consideration of the material for decades. This exhibition begins a much-needed inquiry by examining the formal aspects of the prints, leading to the consideration of their place in the continuity of Evans career and also as objects in and of themselves that Evans eagerly collected.
Evans’s embrace of new technology suggests that recent advances in digital photography would have fascinated him—and visitors to this exhibition benefit immensely from that technology. High-resolution scanners and inkjet printers now have the power to obtain highly detailed image files from Evans’s original plates and negatives. With a simple wireless download, modern portable electronic devices can bring these images into the palm of the viewer’s hand, fulfilling Evans’s wish for viewers to have an immersive, personal viewing experience of his photography.
Walker Evans, Brookfield Center, CT, 1930-31. Gelatin silver print. Florence Griswold Museum, Gift of the Walker Evans Estate. © Walker Evans Archive, Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Walker Evans, Tenant Farmer’s Wife, Alabama, 1936. Gelatin silver printed 1971. Private Collection.
Walker Evans, Joe’s Auto Graveyard, near Bethlehem, Pa., 1936. Gelatin silver printed 1971. Private Collection
Walker Evans, Early Dawn Farm, Route 156, Lyme, ca. 1955. Gelatin silver print. Florence Griswold Museum, Gift of the Walker Evans Estate. © Walker Evans Archive, Metropolitan Museum of Art.