Walker Evans's pictures of Southern main streets, tenant farmers, Saratoga in the rain, subway riders, rundown barbershops and peeling billboard posters supply most of our defining images of the Depression. For some of us, they have come to define how a photograph should look, period. Not coincidentally the man behind those photographs was a study in contradiction--the first tip that maybe those pictures aren't as simple as they seem. Although he was a thoroughgoing modernist and a devoted Francophile, he did more than almost anyone to dignify vernacular American art and architecture with his photographs. He was a dandy whose idea of heaven was a pair of handmade shoes, but he is most famous for his penetrating photographs of Depression-era sharecroppers. He was restless all his life, moving from one style to the next, mastering that and then moving on to something else. The miracle is that out of this seemingly aimless artistic nomadism came images of such defining clarity that the photographer and curator John Szarkowski was once moved to wonder rhetorically "whether Evans recorded the America of his youth, or invented it."
There will be plenty of opportunity to ponder the enigmatic Evans this spring, starting on Feb. 1, when the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art opens an enormous--and enormously illuminating--exhibit of 175 prints, the first retrospective drawn from Evans's own archive. (This show will later move to San Francisco and Houston.) A concurrent exhibit at the Met showcases 50 photographs of African masks and sculpture that Evans made in the '30s for the Museum of Modern Art. And MoMA itself, on March 16, opens "Walker Evans & Co.," a show that explores Evans's role as the century's most influential photographer. And on Feb. 10, PBS will air "Walker Evans," a new documentary by former Evans student Sedat Pakay.
No matter how iconic Evans's images have become, their disturbing power remains undiminished. The portrait (right) of Allie Mae Burroughs, a sharecropper's wife, is one of the last century's most unnerving works of art--and one of its most complicated. This is even more remarkable because it is one of the quietest, simplest-looking pictures imaginable. Evans keeps his angle as straight on as a passport photo, using available light that barely casts a shadow. The illusion is that the camera isn't there. But that was his genius: to take a picture with so few prompts that the viewer stares a little harder. Then you begin to notice the worry lines in her forehead, the way she bites her lower lip, the severity of her countenance. You sense something trapped about this woman, but also something resolute. Staring straight into the camera, she almost dares you to stare back. Your curiosity aroused, you want to see deeper, but at the same time, you feel uneasy, as though you've trespassed on someone's privacy.
Remarkably, a good 90 percent of the work we think of as Evans's greatest was done in one decade, beginning around 1929. Before that he was just the aimless son of upper-middle-class Midwesterners. He grew up near Chicago and in Toledo, Ohio, and dreamed of becoming a writer. A college dropout, he had hung around Paris in his 20s, then New York. Then, just like that, he decided to become a photographer. It took him a few months to master the technical end of his craft, but his eye, from the start, was impeccable. By the mid-'30s he was taking photographs for the Farm Security Administration. In 1936, he accompanied the writer James Agee to Alabama to document the lives of tenant farmers for what would be their joint masterpiece, "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men." In 1938, Evans enjoyed his first retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. He was all of 35.
From then until the end of his life, change would be Evans's only constant. Nearly every one of his phases yielded memorable work: portraits of subway riders shot with a hidden camera, photo essays for Fortune Magazine and, late in life, brilliant color Polaroids. The true measure of his greatness may lie in a series of pictures he once made of hand tools: he could mesmerize you with a picture of a pair of pliers. "A garbage can, occasionally, to me at least, can be beautiful," he once told an interviewer. "I lean toward the enchantment, the visual power, of the esthetically rejected object." His subjects--people and places alike--were, more often than not, broken or damaged or ruined. But Evans made us see that against all odds they are also unforgettably beautiful.