‘Walker Evans’ at SFMOMA focuses on photographer’s love of the vernacular

Known for iconic images of the Great Depression and for finding poetry in subjects as mundane as a junkyard, 20th-century photography giant Walker Evans has inspired an extensive retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Evans (1903-1975) created sharply focused, detail-rich images of vernacular culture — ordinary and under-the-radar people and things, from subway riders to main-street storefronts.

Impressed by the work of French photographer Eugene Atget, he broke with fine-art traditions and shifted into documentary and vernacular mode. He helped vernacular photography earn respectability and inspired the likes of Lee Friedlander, Diane Arbus and the pop artists.

At a press briefing last week, SFMOMA senior photography curator Clement Cheroux (formerly at the Centre Pompidou, Paris, which first presented a version of the show) said the exhibition “Walker Evans,” which runs through Feb. 4, represents a large-scale examination the artist deserves.

Occupying all of the galleries in the museum’s Pritzker center, the retrospective covers Evans’ entire career, from the 1920s to the 1970s. It consists of 300 vintage prints from museums and private collections, along with 100 objects from the artist’s personal trove.

Emphasizing Evans’ fascination with the vernacular, the thematically organized show highlights subjects including lettered signs (“Truck and Sign,” 1928-1930); roadside shacks (“Roadside Stand Near Birmingham/Roadside Store Between Tuscaloosa and Greensboro, Alabama”; 1936); and the “beauty of garbage,” for starters.

Possessing both a research scientist’s preciseness and a poetic, humane eye, Evans earned a place in the annals with photographs documenting rural American poverty during the Great Depression. The exhibit includes images he shot for the Farm Security Administration with a large-format, 8-inch by 10-inch camera.

Also featured are photos from Evans and writer James Agee’s highly regarded collaboration documenting the lives of three poor Alabama tenant farm families. Later published in the book “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” (1941), these images include Evans’ iconic portrait of sharecropper’s wife Allie Mae Burroughs (1936).

Additional highlights include some of Evans’ “Subway Portraits,” shot from 1938 to 1941 with a hidden camera. These pictures feature New York City subway riders and reflect the artist’s undying interest in everyday folk.

“Pedestrian” photos, including pictures Evans took of passersby with a fixed camera at a Detroit intersection for Fortune magazine in 1946, have a similar quality.

The exhibit also devotes substantial attention to methods Evans used to document his subjects. These include street, architectural and catalog photography, the latter exemplified by images of household tools and African objects.

Evans’ works are accompanied by items from his massive personal collection of old-time postcards, rusty signs and graphic ephemera, such as tickets and brochures.

It the exhibition were any larger, it would be too much to absorb. But it’s worthy viewing, and healthy attention spans will be rewarded.

Walker Evans
Where: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, fourth floor, 151 Third St., S.F.
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily (except closed Wednesdays and until 9 p.m. Thursdays); through Feb. 4
Admission: $19 to $33; free for 18 and younger
Contact: (415) 357-4000, www.sfmoma.org

Leslie Katz

San Francisco Examiner’s arts and entertainment editor Leslie Katz has been assigning, editing and/or writing news stories about the Bay Area’s rich cultural scene since 1997. Reach her at (415) 359-2727 or lkatz@sfexaminer.com.

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