Walker Evans’ moving depression era images -- including “Floyd and Lucille Burroughs, Hale County, Alabama, 1936” -- are among the works on view in the huge San Francisco Museum of Modern Art retrospective.  (Courtesy J. Paul Getty Museum/Walker Evans Archive)

Walker Evans’ moving depression era images -- including “Floyd and Lucille Burroughs, Hale County, Alabama, 1936” -- are among the works on view in the huge San Francisco Museum of Modern Art retrospective. (Courtesy J. Paul Getty Museum/Walker Evans Archive)

‘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.

IF YOU GO
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.orgClement CherouxMuseums and GalleriesphotographySan Francisco Museum of Modern ArtvernacularVisual ArtsWalker Evans

Just Posted

Dreamforce returned to San Francisco in person this week – but with a tiny sliver of past attendance. (Courtesy Salesforce)
Dreamforce returns with hundreds on hand, down from 170,000 in the past

High hopes for a larger Salesforce conference shriveled during the summer

The numbers show nearly 14 percent of San Francisco voters who participated in the Sept. 14 recall election wanted to oust Gov. Gavin Newsom from elected office. (Shutterstock photo)
(Shutterstock photo)
How San Francisco neighborhoods voted in the Newsom recall

Sunset tops the list as the area with the most ‘yes’ votes

Alison Collins says that she and other members of San Francisco Unified School District Board of Education facing potential recall “represent constituents that are often erased or talked over.” <ins>(Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)</ins>
Alison Collins speaks: Embattled SF school board member confronts the recall effort

‘It’s important for folks to know what this recall is about. It’s bigger than any one of us.’

Is the Black Cat incident a distraction from the recovery of The City’s storied nightlife industry or does Mayor London Breed’s behavior inadvertently highlight the predicament the industry’s been in since San Francisco reinstated indoor mask requirements on Aug. 20?<ins> (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner, 2021)</ins>
Club owners to maskless mayor: Are we the new fun police?

Black Cat affair highlights difficult recovery for nightlife industry

BART’s Powell Street station in The City was the site of a fatal accident on Sept. 13.<ins> (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)</ins>
Powell Station death serves as a grim reminder. BART doors don’t stop for anyone

What you need to know about safety sensors on the trains

Most Read