The Exacting Eye of Walker Evans @Florence Griswold Museum

JTF (just the facts): A total of 185 photographs, variously framed and matted, and hung in a series of three connected gallery spaces. The prints are a mix of gelatin silver prints, archival pigment prints and Polaroids, taken between 1930 and 1975. While no dimensions or edition information was available on the wall labels, the prints range in size from small SX-70 instant prints to much larger posthumous enlargements. The exhibit also includes 5 Fortune spreads and 6 actual magazines (in glass cases), 1 exhibition poster, and a group of 20 signs, displayed either as actual artifacts or framed scans. (Installation shots at right.)

Comments/Context: While the level of scholarship applied to the work of master photographer Walker Evans has been exactingly high over the years, this sampler-style exhibit is a reminder that there are plenty of pleasures to be had in simply seeing (again) selected great works from an important artist’s career. It’s been over a decade since the Met’s last retrospective (not including the superlative postcard themed show a few years ago), so perhaps we are due for a refrain from Evans, if only as a reminder of his lasting originality and continuing influence.

The first room of this show is a parade of Evans’ Depression-era photography, mixing “normal” sized prints with eye-catching enlargements of some of his most famous images: Alabama tenant farmers, the penny picture studio, spare geometric churches and vernacular storefront architecture, painted murals and folk art signage, the auto graveyard. That every picture in the room was made between 1935 and 1936 is a testament to just how productive and innovative Evans was during that time.

The next room tries to wrap an “editor” label around a bunch of disparate work; I’m not sure this catch-all tells us much about nearly three decades of Evans’ output, but I don’t think it matters much. There are standout images from Cuba and the subway portrait series on display, as well as a number of spreads from Fortune. These are matched with some of Evans’ early color work from the late 1950s, his massive tool still lifes, and two portfolios of his “best” images produced in the 1970s, along with a handful of lesser known Connecticut themed pictures from his time living nearby and teaching at Yale.

The final room is dedicated to Evans’ well known love of American signage and his late exploration of the SX-70 Polaroid. A few actual signs are intermixed with digital scans of rusty relics and product advertising; these are then juxtaposed with Evans’ photographs capturing abstract fragments of lettering or documenting particularly quirky examples of American graphic history. Two nearby grids of close-up, flash-strewn facial portraits show Evans searching for the visual boundaries of this new camera.

While this show can’t claim to be comprehensive or to break new academic ground, I think it does provide a solid, viewer friendly round-up of many of Evans’ important bodies of work. It left me feeling like I wanted to dig deeper into his Fortune years and his last decade in color, both of which lie a bit outside the mainstream of the Evans narrative. All in, if you’re hankering for an authentic dose of Evans’ “lyric documentary” style, a quick trip up the road to Old Lyme will amply satisfy your cravings.
Collector’s POV: Given this is a museum show, there are, of course, no posted prices. Evans’ prints are routinely available in the secondary markets, with dozens of prints coming up for auction every year. Recent prices have ranged from $1000 to nearly $200000, with vintage prints of his most iconic images at the top end of that range.
Rating: ** (two stars) VERY GOOD (rating system described here)
Transit Hub:
  • Special exhibit companion site (here)
  • Features/Reviews: Hartford Courant (here), The Day (here)

The Exacting Eye of Walker Evans
Through January 29th

96 Lyme Street
Old Lyme, CT 06371

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