Walker Evans

“Simple Secrets,” a somewhat unconventional survey of Walker Evans’ career, was selected from the Atlanta-based Hill family’s extensive collection of his photographs. Evans’ most famous body of work, the Depression-era scenes from tenant farms and small towns, was largely unrepresented (though his celebrated ability to accord the human subject a straightforward dignity in harsh circumstances was demonstrated in a group of earlier pictures shot in Cuba). Thirteen previously unpublished photographs were particularly welcome, drawing attention to lesser-known aspects of the photographer’s work, like the Modernist play of his early images and his late color Polaroids (such as the compelling Graffiti: “Here,” 1974, in which the word floats over a luminous ground that could be a Color Field painting).

The exhibition (currently on view at the International Center for Photography in New York) afforded a particularly good opportunity to revisit Evans’ early work, particularly the New York cityscapes he made at the start of his career. A series of tiny prints (less than four inches square) from 1928 and 1929 finds Evans deriving exquisite distillations of details of buildings and streets in a manner akin to that of his Precisionist contemporaries. The photomontage Brooklyn Bridge Composition, 1929, confronts the bridge, seen from the ground, with its own mirror-image to produce an abstraction of almost gestural character. View of Ossining, New York, 1930, anticipates the many photographs Evans took of small towns, which he treated essentially as sculptural masses that thrust out from, yet remain continuous with, their natural settings.

Evans’ work from the mid-’30s, when he photographed in the South for the Farm Security Administration, was represented primarily by landscapes and architectural images. Southern Farmland, 1936, is a haunted study in contrasting textures, juxtaposing the bark of the dead trees in the foreground with the matted grass below and the leaves and feathery branches in the background. Church Organ and Pews, 1936, exemplifies what the photographer slyly called his “documentary style” work. At first glance, it appears to be a straightforward record of the interior of a rural church, but details conspire to create a different impression. The organ seems too close to the first row of pews; the lighting emphasizes the detail of the instrument’s carved surface and throws a thick black shadow behind it; the blast of whiteness in the window effaces any sense of an exterior environment. The image suggests a world of objects that is self-sufficient and self-contained: the room is full, even in the absence of the people for whom it ostensibly exists.

This dichotomy in Evans’ work between people and places emerged very clearly here. Except in the FSA pictures, Evans tended to keep his two main subjects sharply apart. Landscapes, cityscapes, and architectural studies are usually unpopulated, the human presence implied only through the presence of such surrogates as mannequins, hanging laundry, or the posters and signs that preoccupied him throughout his life. Many of the portrait images, conversely, are cropped to show as little of the surround as possible. A series of people on the street taken in Chicago and Detroit in the mid-’40s is particularly dramatic in this regard. Shot from a low angle, these subjects loom against the sky. Their quotidian poses take on a hieratic aspect, making them less individuals than monuments to the singularities of the common man. Objects, too, are isolated for study, like the two derelict boilers in a photograph from 1946, and “The Superrench”—Two-Ended Wrench, 1955, from a portfolio of images of tools. Evans’ strategy of removing (or freeing) subjects from their context and the small scale of his prints attest to the rigor of his attention. In the photographer’s hands, each subject rewarded such careful examination.

Philip Auslander