Walker Evans, now through April 8, 2012, at the Cantor Arts Center on the Stanford campus, gets into the good stuff quickly. Dutifully, the 125-plus-piece exhibition opens with three modest self-portraits taken in Paris (1926) and a small collection of formal, modernist studies of New York skyscrapers (late 1920s). This is an artist finding himself, doing the things he's been told are important. But once he got beyond these predictable exercises in narcissism and conventional wisdom, Evans found his footing, roaming the streets of New York City to see what his camera could find.
Walker Evans, Broadway, 1930; Lent by Elizabeth and Robert J. Fisher, c. Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
One of its first discoveries became New York Lunch Counter, 1930. Shot from the sidewalk into a café whose window advertises "ICE COLD MILK," the photograph captures a man in a straw boater drinking, naturally, a glass of milk. He's staring back at Evans as he gulps, with a 'What could possibly be so interesting to that fellow?' expression on his face. Well, that sourpuss expression for one, along with the fact that he's not centered in the frame despite being the picture's primary subject. In fact, our eye is so busy darting between him and the customer to his left, who's tucking into a messy lunch, it takes us a moment before we connect the drink the man's downing with the loud advertisement on the café's plate glass.
On their surfaces, photos like New York Lunch Counter suggest that Evans understood well the role he could play as a documentarian, but he also seemed aware that his presence as an observer could affect the things he was trying to document. The observer's effect, in this case, was the man in the boater's expression.
Walker Evans, Alabama Tenant Farmer, 1936; Lent by Elizabeth and Robert J. Fisher, c. Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Similarly, Evans was not just a fly on the wall when he photographed sharecroppers in West Virginia for the Resettlement Administration, which became the Farm Security Administration, during the depths of the Depression. Along with Dorothea Lange, Arthur Rothstein and others, Evans brought the realities of rural poverty to a weary nation. In photos such as West Virginia Living Room, 1935, Evans documents a barefoot boy sitting in a wooden chair, who faces Evans right back. Ostensibly, the photo's a portrait, but the youth may not have realized he'd be competing for our attention with the irony of his surroundings. To his left, a wooden wall has been insulated by cardboard advertisements of healthy, smiling people, whose packaged prosperity seems a mockery of the lad's harsh circumstances. There's even a Santa Claus on the wall, not because it's a friendly image brightening the grimness that typified life in the mining town of Scotts Run, but because it kept the cold out.
Some of Evans's most indelible images were shot in 1936 in a settlement just north of Greensboro, Alabama. In particular, Evans and author James Agee spent several weeks at the four-room cabin of cotton sharecropper Floyd Burroughs and his wife, Allie Mae, whose image was featured in Evans's 1938 American Photographs exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, and again in 1941 for Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which featured Agee's text and 31 of Evans's photographs from the 1936 trip.
The photo of Allie Mae in their book, and the one that's on view in Walker Evans, features a woman whose lips are so tight, the line that divides them is almost horizontal. Apparently, though, Evans shot four versions of this most famous of his portraits. In his 1938 show at MOMA, for example, he showed Allie Mae smiling. While I appreciated the multiple copies, in numerous languages, of Let Us Now Praise..., it would have been just as instructive to see the four faces of Allie Mae.
Walker Evans, Traffic, New York City, 1928-30; Lent by Elizabeth and Robert J. Fisher, c. Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Less successful are Evans's portraits of people riding New York City subways, taken between 1938 and 1941. While Evans managed to capture numerous candid moments -- his hidden camera caught old men napping and grimacing, women of various ages stealing sidelong glances at events we cannot see -- it's difficult to care about this cold, colorless world beneath the streets. No wonder publishers balked until 1966.
Better is the work he did for Fortune from 1945 to 1965. At the Cantor, photo essays Evans shot about trains and train travel in the 1950s are on view in print and published form, which immediately made me want to start collecting old copies of the magazine. And I was surprised by how much I liked the small Polaroid SX-70 prints he took in 1973 and '74, before he died in 1975. That series proved that anybody, even Walker Evans, could go out and take a good Walker Evans photograph. Turns out, it's not just a case of what to focus on, but also what to leave out.
Walker Evans runs through April 8, 2012 at the Cantor Arts Center on the Stanford campus. For more information visit stanford.edu.