The Eye of Walker Evans

Walker Evans: New York 11, 1998

exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, July 28-October

Walker Evans: The Hungry Eye

by Gilles Mora and John T. Hill
Abrams, 368 pp., $75.00

Walker Evans: Signs

with an essay by Andrei Codrescu
J. Paul Getty Museum, 69 pp., $19.95

Walker Evans: Havana 1933

by Gilles Mora and John T. Hill

Walker Evans: Photographs for the Farm Security Administration, 1935-38 Administration Collection in the Library of Congress

A Catalog of Photographic Prints Available from the Farm Security
Da Capo, unpaginated pp., $18.95

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

by James Agee and Walker Evans
Houghton Mifflin, 471 pp., $16.95 (paper)

Walker Evans at Work

with an essay by Jerry L. Thompson
Harper and Row

Walker Evans: American Photographs

with an essay by Lincoln Kirstein
Museum of Modern Art, 205 pp., $22.50

The photographs Walker Evans made of the small-town, dirt-farm South in the 1930s for the Resettlement Administration and the Farm Security Administration and for Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), his collaboration with James Agee, are definitive and so characteristic that today it might almost seem as if he not only made the pictures but, like a novelist, invented their subjects as well. Conversely, because the pictures are so rigorously plain, you might think that he just got lucky, happened to be there with a lens and a shutter, as if anybody remotely awake in that place at that time could have done the same. But of course there were other photographers working the same beat then, and their pictures don’t look much like Evans’s. Either they strove for the messages and sentiments and aphorisms that Evans vacuumed from his work, or else they allowed themselves a style. At his peak, Evans possessed a conjurer’s genius, shared with certain character actors and a very small number of writers, for making art that appears neither to be art nor to have been consciously made.

New York City is not the first subject pool that comes to mind with Evans, so that the show organized by the Getty Center, which owns far and away the largest collection of Evans’s work in the world, could superficially pass for one of those thought-provoking sidelights: Degas in New Orleans, Flaubert in Egypt. But Evans lived in New York most of his adult life, began his career there, and consistently returned to it with his camera, and the show turns out to function something like an X-ray of his work’s course. Its four small rooms (the Getty’s buildings, which look like a post-mod set of Delphic temples, dramatically poised on a hilltop overlooking Los Angeles, contain a museum that is, proportionally, itsy-bitsy) correspond to the major periods of Evans’s creative life. The first covers his brief but dashing apprenticeship in the late 1920s, when he was a determined modernist. The second and third are devoted to his peak, the 1930s. The last only contains pictures made in the early 1960s, but it does not misrepresent his last thirty-odd years of work, when he was above all else a collector.

Evans’s background was archetypal Midwestern middle-class. He could append a “III” after his name. He grew up in a Chicago suburb in which all the streets were named after people and places in the novels of Sir Walter Scott. His childhood was Booth Tarkingtonian up to the point when Evans II dumped the family to move in with his favorite widow. He was a largely indifferent student who climbed a rickety ladder of secondary institutions, winding up with a year at Andover, after which he spent a year at Williams College, and that was that. His future career seems nowhere foreshadowed. He actually had vague literary ambitions which culminated in the standard year in Paris. This failed to produce the standard novel, but it did…

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