Walker Evans, Sidewalk Display, 1957, 35-mm slide. Originally published in Fortune, October 1958. © Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Walker Evans, Sidewalk Display, 1957, 35-mm slide. Originally published in Fortune, October 1958. © Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Walker Evans

Walker Evans, Sidewalk Display, 1957, 35-mm slide. Originally published in Fortune, October 1958. © Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

IN 1971, on the eve of his retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Walker Evans declared, “A document has use, whereas art is really useless. Therefore art is never a document, though it certainly can adopt that style.” This articulation of what Evans famously called “documentary style” helps situate the artist as a progenitor of both the new “social landscape” photographers and Conceptual artists using photography, who during the 1960s turned to the aesthetics of utilitarian pictures. Yet Evans’s definition also points to the continual semantic problems that arise when applying the term documentary to photography, and in a sense foretells the numerous critiques of the genre that arose in the ’70s and ’80s. The Centre Pompidou’s exhibition “Walker Evans” cleverly bypassed the loaded and historically slippery descriptor by situating Evans’s interest in everyday documents within his broader engagement with other “useful” forms of cultural expression in the United States, taking the vernacular rather than the documentary as its structuring principle. It was the vast field of daily life, the overlooked, the low, that drove Evans’s work, rather than the style of art mimicking the document.

The exhibition, organized by the museum’s former chief curator of photography Clément Chéroux, was the first of its kind in France but came on the heels of several recent exhibitions of the photographer’s work, including the 2015–17 “Walker Evans: Depth of Field,” co-organized by the High Museum of Art in Atlanta; the Josef Albers Museum Quadrat in Bottrop, Germany; and the Vancouver Art Gallery. But “Walker Evans” set itself apart, not only in its scale and scope—this impressive and sprawling exhibition included more than four hundred photographs, books, magazines, and other objects gathered from an array of public and private collections in North America and Europe—but also by abandoning a traditional chronological presentation in favor of a thematic organization. Given Evans’s own penchant for re-presenting his work, and the fact that numerous projects were delayed or reissued during his lifetime, an achronological layout seemed both innovative and appropriate. And though such an approach had a tendency to flatten out nearly fifty years of creative production, it allowed for a varied and dynamic installation that mixed some of Evans’s best known works from the ’30s with others from the following three decades, furthering a certain democratic notion often associated with the vernacular.

In spite of its thematic structure, however, the exhibition still opened with a fairly conventional account of Evans’s beginnings. A somewhat extraneous introductory set of galleries staged a well-established narrative surrounding Evans’s early experiments with literature and European modernism (which followed his sojourn in Paris in 1926) before his eventual embrace of his signature style in the early ’30s. More pertinent to the exhibition’s thesis was a small subsection that looked at Evans’s friendship with the photographer Berenice Abbott and the critic and arts patron Lincoln Kirstein—two key interlocutors who were important to his conception of documentary and his reception of the French photographer Eugène Atget and the American photographer Mathew Brady. (Kirstein, who was extremely knowledgeable about modern art and famously well connected, was particularly instrumental to the first decade of Evans’s practice.)

The rest of the exhibition was divided into two main sections: “The Vernacular as Subject” and “The Vernacular as Method.” Chéroux’s definition of vernacular encompasses nearly any form of popular cultural expression outside the traditional circuits of artistic production and display. While this broad concept helps expand Evans’s practice beyond the confines of documentary, the term is, if anything, so general that it threatens to lose its value as an organizing principle. This generic quality even echoes Evans’s own loose formulation of his documentary style, in the sense that both reinforce the binary between art and non-art and obscure the ways in which Evans, like other artists during this period, may have used these historically specific and often contested categories to redefine the nature of his practice: upending inherited distinctions between high and low, integrating art into everyday life, and reaching larger audiences through new forms of distribution and display.

“The Vernacular as Subject” highlighted some of Evans’s most iconic subjects of the ’30s, from rural architecture and shopwindows to billboards and posters, such as Roadside Stand near Birmingham/Roadside Store Between Tuscaloosa and Greensboro, Alabama and Houses and Billboards in Atlanta, both 1936. Although there was little mention of Evans’s influential 1938 exhibition and book American Photographs in the wall text, this section owed many of its themes and images to that project. In addition to the objects and architecture of popular American culture, the section also singled out many of the “humble” people whom Evans photographed, including, for example, an extraordinary series of photographs of flood refugees along the Mississippi River in Arkansas from 1937. Evans made these and many other images presented here while employed by the federal government’s Resettlement Administration (which later became the Farm Security Administration) from 1935 to 1937. In 1936, he took a leave of absence to work on a project with the writer James Agee about three families of tenant cotton farmers in Alabama, which eventually became the groundbreaking book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941). An entire gallery in this section was dedicated to one of the best-known images from this project, which is also among the most celebrated Evans ever produced: the now-iconic portrait of Allie Mae Burroughs. Two versions were shown, however, with the more widely published photograph, which was included in both American Photographs and Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, alongside a variant. An audio interview with Burroughs from the ’70s played from a set of speakers. This dramatic installation underscored the shift in meaning between the two pictures through slight differences in the woman’s facial expressions. Evans ultimately chose the image of Burroughs with a more stoic or neutral look, and the selection points to his skill as an editor and to his preference for narrative ambiguity in an age of public persuasion.

Among the show’s many highlights were two small galleries that introduced the thematic sections, bolstering the exhibition’s thesis that Evans was continuously inspired by the vernacular with displays of objects drawn from the artist’s own collections, now part of the Walker Evans Archive at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. The densely hung walls included selections of early-twentieth-century color postcards and signs. Evans exhibited or reproduced the former in an essay he published for Fortune in 1948, and the latter in his solo exhibition “Walker Evans: Forty Years” at Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven, which was organized soon after his 1971 MoMA retrospective. Here, Evans’s collages of found photographs and newspaper clippings were also shown, alongside posters, snapshots, and studio portraits by regional photographers such as Mike Disfarmer, who ran a studio in rural Arkansas during the ’30s and ’40s.

These two installations drew a link between Evans’s photographs and his interest in the subjects and styles of images that made up American popular culture, and these connections were explored further in “The Vernacular as Method.” For example, his numerous pictures of the thoroughfares of American cities, such as Main Street, Saratoga Springs, New York, 1931, echo images found on his postcards. His interest in photo-booth pictures as well as both candid and studio portraits presages his own serial photographs of anonymous individuals on streets and trains, such as a series taken in Detroit that he published as the photo story “Labor Anonymous” for Fortune in 1946, or his photographs of subway riders from 1938–41, which were collected in the book Many Are Called (1966). Other images recall catalogue photography, such as his photos of African art objects for an exhibition organized at MoMA in 1935 or a startlingly Bauhaus-like photo story on the “Beauties of the Common Tool” for Fortune in 1955.

These final galleries made a compelling argument that Evans frequently adopted the aesthetics and methods of commercial and amateur photographic practices for purely artistic ends. Yet some conceptual problems arise from such an interpretation. In many cases, Evans did not take photographs like a professional photographer, but as one—a slight but significant difference. As early as 1931, in his essay “The Reappearance of Photography” for Kirstein’s journal Hound and Horn, Evans posited that the most modern and intelligent photographs were not those that aspired to be art. Instead, they were the results of instrumental and commercial uses of the medium. Throughout his career, Evans produced many of his images while employed by various individuals and organizations, and the results are scattered throughout the exhibition: architectural survey work, photographs for the Resettlement Administration, and various magazine and book projects made for hire, to name a few.

Perhaps another related story, not fully explored in the exhibition (although told recently, in part, in David Campany’s excellent 2014 book Walker Evans: The Magazine Work and his exhibition of the same name), is how Evans often rebelled against and slyly subverted these professional and commercial practices from within—reusing these everyday pictures for his own purposes, much like the vernacular objects he collected. He was particular about how his photographs were displayed and reproduced, controlling the sequencing and layout for narrative and poetic effect. He also paid close attention to the relationship between text and image. In fact, he often refused to allow captions—a hallmark of photojournalism and the documentary mode—next to his photographs. The exhibition does include a generous display of publications for which Evans made his photographs, and for which he frequently wrote and designed the layouts. These show the degree to which Evans carefully considered the contexts in which his photographs appeared. He knew that, in life as in art, presentation is everything.

“Walker Evans” travels to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Sept. 30, 2017–Feb. 4, 2018.

Drew Sawyer is head of exhibitions and William J. and Sarah Ross Soter Associate Curator of Photography at Ohio’s Columbus Museum Of Art.