Interview with Jeff Rosenheim and Maria Morris Hambourg on Walker Evans: At the roots of Warhol

The upcoming Met exhibition presents the whole career of the photographer famous for his images of the Depression


The mere mention of Walker Evans calls to mind an Alabama farmer's gaunt face from the grim 1930s and a landscape strewn with signs and fragments of printed language. The current Walker Evans retrospective of 170 photographs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Met) now looks at his entire career. He took pictures until his death in 1975, and his estate donated his archive to the Met in 1994. Since then, curators there have been preparing this show.

Pleading an aversion to politics, Evans the documentarist ranged far beyond his images of Depression sharecroppers that he published alongside a text by James Agee in 1941 as Let us now praise famous men. (The war-distracted public ignored it.) Evans explored the American South, but also observed New York, focusing always on architecture, advertising and the people passing through.

A gifted writer who once aspired to be a novelist, he wrote art reviews for Time magazine and declined an offer to be a critic at the New York Times. A series of photographs that he arranged could have the narrative power of an essay.

Evans taught for years at Yale—long enough to become a guru in the 1960s when a new generation of bohemians devoured Let us now praise famous men. Over decades at Fortune magazine, he would commission, write, photograph, and design articles which appeared in that business publication—an odd place for a man who gave a face to desperate poverty.

The only other American artists so closely linked with commercial magazines were Norman Rockwell and Andy Warhol. Indeed, in Evans one finds the roots of Warhol's serial images and advertising typologies. A populist who insisted that his images be mass-produced on postcards, Evans was also a conceptualist who hid his camera on the New York subway to steal images and defy notions about the viewer and the viewed.

David D'Arcy spoke to Jeff Rosenheim, curator of the Met retrospective and Maria Morris Hambourg, head of the Met's Department of Photographs.

Does the archive hold any revelations for people who have followed Evans's career?

Jeff Rosenheim There are photographs that have never been seen before, from each decade of work, and these are very exciting, especially as they relate to his classic images which have been published in numerous exhibitions and catalogues. We're also using the archive to present material that has really never had an audience, and has never been seen, such as an album, “Pictures of the time”. It's a clippings album put together in the 1930s by Evans alongside James Agee, drawn from the picture press—Life magazine, Time magazine, as well as other art magazines—and it's a synthesis of the public imagery, the popular culture, and the media age in which Evans came of age. These are not photographs. These are reproductions of photographs and other clippings, but we're also showing his work at Fortune in the Fortune magazines. Also, we've selected approximately fifty colour transparencies from his twenty years of colour work—the mid-40s to the 60s—which represent a quarter of his output, and we're showing them in a slow slide-show presentation using a digital file. That's really never been seen before.

What's special about these images?

JR We know that Evans spent decades thinking about the world in black and white. Although he said at one point that he thought colour was vulgar, he also became very interested in the medium, and Kodachrome has rich saturated colour tones. In the mid-40s he began to photograph that same landscape that he had done in black and white, and these pictures suggest another direction that he was working on simultaneously. They're fascinating.

What relationship did Evans have with the Met during his lifetime?

JR Evans's relationship with the Met began with a friendship with Hyatt Mayer, whom he knew through Lincoln Kirstein. In the 30s and 40s the museum did not collect any of Evans's work. But in 1950, Lincoln Kirstein donated to the then Department of Prints a set of architectural photographs which Kirstein had sponsored in 1930 and 1931, and this begins the department's collection of Evans's photographs. In 1971, at the time of first Walker Evans retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, Evans did visit the Met and meet with the then head of the department, John McHenry, and looked through our collection of photographs. In the archive there are some minor notes.

Maria Morris Hambourg The earliest direct historical connection that we have is from 1929, when Evans came to the museum in order to see prints that had been recently given to the Met by Alfred Stieglitz. Evans found these prints, many of them of Georgia O'Keeffe (whom he had also met, along with Stieglitz), and he was very much impressed. He was aware of the importance of Stieglitz, and he came to view the great master's works, and he went away feeling very positive. He later rejected Stieglitz's artiness and high-flown rhetoric, because he had a very difficult run-in with him. He had hoped to have some encouragement, and Stieglitz was pressured, and otherwise preoccupied and basically told him to work hard, get along and "thanks very much".

JR We have an undated manuscript in the archive. Evans proposed a book project in which he would come to the museum, and with his eye—and not his historical understanding of the history of art—select those objects that appealed to him through his personal taste, and do a book, not of professional photography of the objects, just his own visit to the museum,. It was an unrealised project, but it suggests an artist's perspective on the tradition.

Clearly, Evans was not drawn just to ordinary objects. In a separate exhibition, “Perfect documents; Walker Evans and African Art, 1935”, the Met is showing fifty photos that Evans took of objects displayed at the Museum of Modern Art in 1935 as “African Negro Art”, and sculptures from that same show.

JR Since MoMA already had a catalogue of the exhibition, what they proposed Evans do was a special portfolio—executed, unfortunately while the objects were on view. He could not take them into a studio, to photograph them, and he was not a studio photographer. And he had only haphazardly documented any works of art before—either with his roommate the painter Ben Shahn or with some of the galleries downtown. He developed a technique by which he moved the lights behind the camera—an eight by ten-inch view camera—so that there would not be distinct shadows on the left or the right, or above or below the figurines, but the objects would seem to glow and be separated from the museum environment. To the degree that he succeeded, these pictures were not the first documentation of African art, but a very important exhibition at an important time when African objects were being seen as an aesthetic tradition, not only an ethnographic tradition.