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Walker Evans – from the Ideal to the Ordinary

Last Thursday, I attended a lecture on Walker Evans given by Jeff L. Rosenheim at Stanford’s Cantor Art Center. Rosenheim is Curator, Department of Photographs, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art – and a leading authority on Walker Evans. The Cantor has a comprehensive exhibition of Evans’ work on display currently – it’s a delight to enjoy.

Walker EvansRosenheim divided his talk into three parts – a biographical introduction to Evans, his primary years photographing New York, Paris, Havana, and the American South, and his later years at Fortune and Yale. A frustrated writer, Evans turned to photography instead – and made photographs that have become the iconic images that document life in American in those days.

As I’ve been spending a bit more time studying the works of Evans, I found a wonderful volume at my local Menlo Park Library this morning titled “Unclassified – A Walker Evans Anthology” edited by Rosenheim and published by the Metropolitan in 2000.

In the introduction to this volume, Maria Morris Hambourg, Curator in Charge of the Department of Photographs at the Metropolitan writes:

“…[Evans] sensed that the timbre of the time was conveyed with a peculiar authenticity through vernacular things rather than formal or academic expressions, and he therefore made a habit of studying billboards, roadside stands, wrecked cars, rural churches, graffiti, and trash for signal significance. Shifting attention from the ideal to the ordinary, he leveled the landscape of art.”

From the ideal to the ordinary – Evans made the ordinary so special. Walking through this exhibition of his images, you can see the most ordinary elements of American life through Evans’ special eye. Remarkable.

Whether he is an artist or not, the photographer is a joyous sensualist, for the simple reason that the eye traffics in feelings, not in thoughts. – Walker Evans

[Notes: When asked about his other favorite American photographers, Rosenheim mentioned Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, Dorothea Lange, Lee Friedlander and Helen Levitt.]

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