The Great Voyeur

In an age of the artist-as-exhibitionist, Walker Evans was a voyeur, peering at the world through the curtains of his hooded eyes, then taking his devastating, disinterested, and transcendent pictures and slipping away. “Stare,” he once said, recalling lessons learned from the cafés of Paris in the 1920s. “It is the only way to educate your eye, and more. Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop…. I stare and stare at people, shamelessly.”

Or regarding the subway portraits taken in the late Thirties with a camera hidden under his overcoat, he described himself as “a spy and voyeur in the swaying seat.” And: “The guard is down and the mask is off: even more than when in lone bedrooms (where there are mirrors). People’s faces are in naked repose in the subway.”

He died in 1975, at the age of seventy-one. Since then, he has gone from being celebrated to being a near-celebrity, with a foot-high stack of biographies, memoirs, catalogs, correspondence, and reissues appearing along with shows in the last seven years; and now a retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art—Walker Evans —175 photographs along with cases of books, magazines, catalogs, and postcards from his archives.

Once, seeing his pictures was an oddly personal experience. Now, it’s part of a public spectacle as well. His pictures retain the intimacy of confidences—the subway portraits, the photographs of architecture, even the famous sharecropper pictures from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. But Evans the friendly voyeur is simultaneously a hero on exhibit with Ansel Adams or Alfred Stieglitz.

Better than oblivion: and ultimately, the pictures themselves will show whether they can survive installation in the pantheon of art history, museum shows, critical theory, and reports on auction prices. For now, this handsome Metropolitan show has done as little damage to them as possible. During the press preview, Evans’s images seemed aloof from any number of TV cameras and notepads. The pictures still glowed out of their own mysterious darkness—presented in warm, low-key vintage prints whose lighter tones have a sort of phosphorescence—remarkable but not bright. They still have what James Agee called, in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, “the cruel radiance of what is.” They remain unmediated.

In 1947, Evans told Time magazine: “I used to try to figure out precisely what I was seeing all the time, until I discovered I didn’t need to. If the thing is there, why, there it is.” So it is for Evans’s audience at the Met, in pictures from the clumsy 1920s snapshots in France and Italy to the last, failing SX-70 Polaroids of street signs and the girls he fell in love with.

You don’t look inside Walker Evans. He’s no expressionist, aesthetic ideologue, or preacher of neurotic victimhood. Instead, he stands aside to let you see what he sees through the window of his viewfinder. “Shhh, there it is,” he seems to say, with an authoritative elbow in your ribs.

In his …

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