Critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 6, 2017
John T. Hill and Heinz Liesbrock, eds. Walker Evans: Depth of Field Exh. cat. New York: Prestel, 2015. 408 pp.; 50 color ills.; 350 b/w ills. Cloth $85.00 (9783791382234)
Exhibition schedule: Josef Albers Museum Quadrat Bottrop, Germany, September 27, 2015–January 10, 2016; High Museum of Art, June 11–September 11, 2016; Vancouver Art Gallery, October 29, 2016–January 22, 2017
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Installation view of Walker Evans: Depth of Field, High Museum of Art, Atlanta (photograph by Mike Jensen; photograph provided by High Museum of Art)

Walking into the Walker Evans: Depth of Field exhibition at the High Museum, one encountered three distinct gallery spaces that effectively chart the path of Walker Evans’s (1903–1975) career from his early work to his last images. Although his Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographs form the core of the exhibition—pictures that document the effect of the Great Depression across the United States and especially in the American South—the impact of Depth of Field is that it demonstrates the development of a highly personalized and exacting style over the course of Evans’s lifetime. He skillfully captured people and places with great precision and detail, creating impactful images that changed the nature of documentary-based photography. Less often exhibited examples of Evans’s early and later prints in Depth of Field reveal a consistency of approach throughout this St. Louis-born artist’s career, even when it came to photographing vastly different subjects.

The opening gallery was the largest of the three, physically allowing more prints to be displayed but also conceptually laying the foundation for Evans’s first ventures into photography and his long career. This gallery included portraits of figures like Berenice Abbott and Lincoln Kirstein, Evans’s early work in New York City, as well as works from different commissioned series, including his photographs of African sculpture and Southern antebellum architecture. In his labels for this first gallery, curator Brett Abbott argues that in Evans’s early work and commissioned series, viewers witness the spark of what would later be called the “lyric documentary” style for which Evans became so well-known. Also on view in this gallery were prints from the High Museum’s permanent collection by photographers August Sander and Eugène Atget, two European photographers who had a large influence on Evans and the development of his signature style. Abbott strategically places Evans’s prints side by side with those by Sander and Atget; as a result, the similarities are illuminated. From Sander, Evans inherits the desire to document the typology, or the faces, of a city, and from Atget, a quiet yet distinct and clear feeling for picturing the relics of inhabited spaces. Perhaps the most impressive wall in this first gallery, however, was one that displayed views of the Brooklyn Bridge and construction in New York, photographs taken early in the career of this American vernacular photographer. Prints large and small show Evans’s versatility and technical evolution as a young photographer, a careful training of the eye to obtain new vistas, and a more expansive “depth of field.”

The exhibition progresses from this early vision to the mature, consistent style that Evans established by the 1930s, which is most explicitly demonstrated in the work Evans made in Cuba and photographs he produced for the FSA. The juxtaposition reveals that Evans developed a clear portrait style for his subjects in Cuba which he carried over to the documentation of families during the Great Depression. In both Coal Loader, Havana (1933) and Alabama Cotton Tenant Farmer Wife (1936), Evans photographs his subjects with a strong frontal approach, getting close to emphasize the lines in their faces and the fabric of their clothes. These images were etched in an emulsion of gelatin silver on 8 × 10 inch negatives that, because of their size, were capable of holding a vast amount of visual detail. The prints are placed in the second gallery, where they form a central point in the exhibition and mark a key moment in Evans’s career. Abbott uses grids and groupings of photographs to call attention not only to the serial nature of Evans’s work, but also the variety of perspectives he used to capture architecture and city infrastructure, both in New York City and in the American South. By contrast, the portraits made in Cuba, for the FSA, and for Evans’s joint project with writer James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), are exhibited in a straightforward, linear manner, lending singular importance to each of these meticulously composed images. This second gallery also features images that Evans made of signs throughout the United States. Evans began his career as a writer before transitioning to photography, but always retained an interest in the function and nature of words. The exhibition includes many of his “sign” pictures, from the early Truck and Sign (1930) to the later Roadside Gas Sign (1929). Often words, signs, and newspaper imagery combine with other elements in Evans’s photographs to create sharp commentaries on the realities of American life, or, as with Truck and Sign, bear witness to humorous, playful moments quickly captured on the street. Through the inclusion of prints that show recurrent motifs across Evans’s career and in constructing thoughtful groupings, Abbott effectively creates a holistic understanding of the evolution of Evans’s photographic style and method from one print and series to the next.

Filling out Evans’s career, the third gallery consists of later work: color Polaroids, photographs made for Fortune, images of Chicago and Detroit, and subway portraits. For those only familiar with Evans’s mid-career work, this section of Depth of Field illuminates a practice that extended well into the 1970s. In these images, Evans builds on his photographic typology of American faces, from close friends and colleagues to strangers on the subway. The influence of a publication like Sander’s Face of Our Time (1929) is present in these photographs, marking the return of an early figure of inspiration in the later work. The addition of Evans’s use of color is also important for assessing a photographer who most viewers strictly associate with black-and-white imagery. Evans experimented with color photography when it was still on the cusp of being accepted into museum spaces as fine art, though Evans chose to work with the widely available Polaroid camera, thereby affirming his commitment to vernacular spaces and subject matter. What is clear in Evans’s later work is that portraiture was an area of sustained interest, and his use of color Polaroids alters what is normally thought of as a Walker Evans portrait. The Polaroid portraits are hazy, darkly lit, and very intimate, departing from the crisp, clean, and distanced quality of his earlier black-and-white portraits.

Depth of Field is historically significant as an exhibition that reassesses the legacy of Evans’ entire career. It builds on the Walker Evans exhibition organized at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2000, which also showcased work from across Evans’s career, and the 2013–14 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), which celebrated the seventy-fifth anniversary of Walker Evans: American Photographs, the first solo MoMA exhibition for a photographer in the United States. The accompanying catalogue and its contributions from John T. Hill, Heinz Liesbrock, Jerry Thompson, and Alan Trachtenberg add to one’s understanding of Evans and the breadth of his photographic career. Containing 120 carefully organized prints, the Depth of Field exhibition traces the coherent method and approach that Evans maintained over his five-decade career, registering his tremendous impact on the history of photography.

Catherine Barth
PhD candidate, Art History Department, Emory University

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.