Massive photo retrospective avoids museum fatigue

Oct 13, 2017

Four hundred items in one exhibit? What were they thinking? Who has the time, or interest, for that much material? I was getting museum fatigue just reading the press release for the Walker Evans photo retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA).

This is the first exhibition at the museum arranged by Clement Cheroux. He came to SFMOMA from Paris a little over a year ago as senior curator of photography. Maybe he’s unaware of the notoriously short American attention span.

Approaching the show with these misgivings, I’m happy to report that my concerns of negotiating wall upon wall and caption after caption of black and white photos were forgotten at first sight.

Walker Evans (1903 – 1975) has the distinction of being the first photographer to have a major solo exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, in 1938. He remains an inspiration to serious photographers today.

Evans worked at a time when photography involved detail well beyond striking a pose and tapping a screen or snapping a shutter. He was one of the first Americans to see his photos mass-produced in magazines. And he didn’t simply drop off his prints at the art departments; Evans did it all, printing and cropping the images, designing page layouts —even writing text to accompany his photos. Examples are included in the show.

Evans was an early practitioner of street photography. Relatively new compact cameras allowed him to focus on weathered signs, ephemera, auto junkyards, what he called “The Beauty of Garbage.” Curator Cheroux says there’s “no doubt” that Evans inspired Andy Warhol and other Pop Art practitioners of the 1960s.

As interesting as the “beautiful garbage” section of the show is, his shots of people are equally intriguing: a nameless subway rider in the late 1930s, boys posing with produce from a roadside stand, backed by elaborate hand painted signage. These images are truly a look into another place and time.

A unique aspect of the exhibit is audio from an interview with Allie Mae Burroughs, subject of one of Evans’ best-known portraits. She tells her own story about author James Agee and Evans staying with her family in their tumble-down sharecropper’s home while working on what became the book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Viewers at SFMOMA stand under an “audio cone” to hear her as they look at two versions of her portrait by Evans. Text of Burroughs’ comments is projected on the wall for the benefit of those unable to decipher her fast talking delivery, or her thick Southern accent.

This exhibit at SFMOMA is the only U.S. showing of this Walker Evans retrospective, which runs through February 4, 2018. It’s more likely to be energizing than fatiguing, but a café is strategically located between the two large galleries if you need a break.