The Hungry Eye

April 6, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: These stark, black and white, deceptively simple photographs are among the best known images of the rural South during the Great Depression. These pictures have become part of our memory bank, part of America’s shared visual catalogue of a time long gone and places changed beyond recognition. When they first appeared 65 years ago, these pictures immediately established the reputation of an artist, who helped move photography in new directions as an art form: Walker Evans. For weeks now, people have been crowding a new exhibit of Evans’ work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Jeff Rosenheim is the curator of photography at the museum.

JEFF L. ROSENHEIM, Curator: I think Evans had a unique idea, which really distinguishes him from many other artists. He set himself up as a historical model to see the present as if it were already the past. And if he could do that at the time, he could stand for all time, and I think that his success is that he achieved his goal to photograph what was most American about America, but also to photograph those things in the present with the eye of tradition. And I think that those pictures are timeless.

RAY SUAREZ: Evans called the style he was striving for, lyric documentary. It was stripped down, meant to record the world as it is, instead of using a tool, the camera, to create a world the eye cannot normally see. Whether shooting the frank, unadorned, straight-ahead gaze of the poorest Americans, small- town streetscapes with no people to be seen, or decaying advertising signs, Evans’ art simply emerged from knowing what to put in, and what to leave out.

JEFF L. ROSENHEIM: He wanted his role to disappear. He wanted to hide his hand, if you will, so that we can stand where he stood and look at the world and come to terms with it directly, unfiltered by the artist’s perceptions, but of course influenced directly by them.

RAY SUAREZ: Evans was born in 1903, and raised in affluence. His desire to be a writer took him to Paris after the First World War. He started his life’s work as a photographer when he returned to America in 1927. Throughout his life, Evans remained a blend of rebel outsider and well-groomed ivy- league sophisticate. His photos of the Brooklyn Bridge, illustrations for a book by his friend Hart Crane, began building his reputation. They were followed by journalistic work in the Caribbean for a book, “The Crime of Cuba.” In the mid-1930’s Evans was hired by the Farm Security Administration. He chronicled the grinding poverty of southern farmers, and indulged his own interest in southern architecture. Rosenheim says, unlike many of the New Deal artists, he did not have a political agenda.

JEFF L. ROSENHEIM: His agreement is no politics, whatsoever, that there would be no use for propaganda. He was not interested in that, but he was well aware that the agency he was working for was trying to illustrate the efforts by the New Deal administration to relieve some of the terrible poverty that has befallen America during the Depression, and that the efforts made by the New Deal administration to assist them was something, I think, he believed in. What he didn’t believe in, is that art could change anything. He believed that the photograph as a record, as a document, would be the greatest thing that could ever have been created by the New Deal administration, and I think it has been.

RAY SUAREZ: It was during this same period that Evans traveled south with writer James Agee. The pair spent several months with the farmers of Hale County, Alabama, in preparation for an article for “Fortune” magazine that would never be published. Instead it became the book, “Let us Now Praise Famous Men,” which along with the New Deal photos sealed Evans place in the history of American photography. But he wasn’t close to finished. He took pictures for another 40 years. Evans’ work was recognized almost immediately for the way it turned documentary photography into an art form. In 1938, the Museum of Modern Art in New York gave Evans their first-ever one-man show in photography.

JEFF L. ROSENHEIM: The art comes in, actually, in the things that are hidden in the picture. It’s the angle of light, the illumination of the facade. If you look at one of these pictures, it’s in the composition, that doesn’t look like it’s anything, but nature’s composition or the civilization’s composition.

RAY SUAREZ: Evans was fascinated with signs. He photographed them, and collected them. Like many earlier 20th century artists, he took ordinary things out of their environment, and treated them as art.

WILLIAM CHRISTENBERRY, Artist: I think he laughingly said that he was the father of pop art at one time, but his interest in things found, like that, those go quite a ways back in his work.

RAY SUAREZ: Artist William Christenberry helped Evans collect many of those signs.

WILLIAM CHRISTENBERRY: I think he was very much taken with, what I call the aesthetics of the aging process: How time and the elements, bullet holes, rust, whatever, can make something that was once in mint condition have a quality that is more interesting than if it were in mint condition.

RAY SUAREZ: While building the stature of photography, Evans also preserved for us lost pieces of the American past, like these photos taken in the New York City subways. They were taken in secret. Evans hid a camera in his coat, and ran a shutter release cable down his sleeve.

JEFF L. ROSENHEIM: And he would sit opposite his fellow passengers on the subway, and record a hidden, if you will, a surreptitious view of his fellow passengers: the idea being that he didn’t like the artifice, and sort of falsity, of commercial portraiture, or studio portraiture. He basically felt like the most honest form of portraiture is a portrait of someone unaware that they’re actually having their picture made.

RAY SUAREZ: In a project for “Fortune” on the working people of Detroit Evans hid in plain sight, holding his camera waist high, and quietly snapping passersby. He was fascinated by the variety of faces, classes, and attitudes of Detroiters in the modern economy. The Metropolitan Museum is not only home to thousands of Evans’ photographs, but the kinds of artifacts that fill in the man behind the art hanging in the galleries. Evans collected thousands of postcards, admiring the straightforward way this format tells a story. The museum has his letters, his diaries, the books he read, the classified ads for his series on working men and women, and the outtakes from his photographic essays. They tell you more about what Evans was looking for in his work, and reassure you that even a master can take underexposed and out-of-focus pictures.

WILLIAM CHRISTENBERRY: Walker Evans’ work influenced me greatly.

RAY SUAREZ: In the early 1960’s, Christenberry was befriended by the older man. Christenberry himself came from the part of Alabama where Evans had made his famous pictures decades before. The two remained friends until Evans’ death in 1975. In the early 1970’s, the two men traveled to the same part of Alabama. By then Evans had switched to color and instant photography– the Polaroid SX-70. Christenberry describes his friend at work.

WILLIAM CHRISTENBERRY: He said, “would you look in the car in my duffel bag and get me a box of film?” SX-70 film, I said, “yes, sir,” and when I took it back to him he was focusing the SX-70, which for me is kind of an awkward camera to focus, but he’d had it up to his eye. So I approached him, without interrupting, from his left side and I saw his eye looking through that lens. And the best way I can describe it, it was like the eye of an eagle. I mean it was really sharply focused. I don’t know how to express that, but it was intense.

RAY SUAREZ: So Christenberry grabbed his own camera, and took this picture, a portrait of the artist, as an old man. In his last years, Evans taught at Yale and tried out the new tools advancing camera technology offered. He said, “the artist’s eye must be hungry, and my eye is hungry.”

JEFF L. ROSENHEIM: It’s in the subway pictures. It’s in the labor anonymous pictures, but I think it’s in all of his work. It’s the struggle between the individual and society. It’s what the artist does. The artist is always somewhat distant from the society, in order to be able to observe it from that sort of necessary distance. You’d spoken about, you know, how do we look at photographs, and what does the photograph teach us? How is… What is the language of the camera? And I think Evans was one of the people that defined it.

RAY SUAREZ: The Evans retrospective is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York until May 14.