Florence Griswold exhibit brings Walker Evans into focus

Walker Evans, “Alabama Cotton Tenant Farmer's Wife,” 1936. Private collection.
Walker Evans, “Alabama Cotton Tenant Farmer's Wife,” 1936. Private collection.

Photographer Walker Evans became a figure of national renown for his portraits of sharecroppers during the Great Depression. Those images remain indelible. The way he captured their haggard faces and their desolate homes all but defined poverty at the time.

Evans was, however, much more than just that series. An exhibition at the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme explores Evans' astonishing range of work.

Besides being a famous figure, Evans also happened to be a Lyme resident. He started visiting the town regularly in 1939 and eventually built a house there in the mid-1960s, around the time he began teaching at Yale. He was a Lyme mainstay until his 1975 death at age 71.

The Florence Griswold Museum devotes a trio of galleries to the exhibition titled "The Exacting Eye of Walker Evans," breaking down different aspects of his photographic life. The first gallery zeroes in on the pictures he took when working for the government's Farm Security Administration in the mid-1930s. They showcase how he developed his style and subjects - how he found the beauty in the commonplace, with his upfront portraits and his photos of roadside signs and decaying architecture.

The second gallery deals with his role as editor for his own photos, as they were published in books, magazines (he began working at Fortune magazine) and portfolios.

And the third encompasses his later life, where he focused on collecting everyday items like advertising and road signs.

Amanda C. Burdan - who is the exhibition's co-curator with John T. Hill, the former executor of the Estate of Walker Evans - says, "We wanted to represent Walker Evans three ways: the known, the unknown and the unexpected aspects of his career."

Indeed, when it comes to the latter two categories, the exhibition covers a good deal of territory, as Burdan notes, with details on his life in Lyme, his fascination with signs, and his later use of Polaroid cameras.

Evans, in fact, first came to Lyme to see the woman who would become his wife, Jane Smith Ninas. She was staying on Grassy Hill Road with the Voorhees family - relatives of Lyme Art Colony painter Clark Voorhees. Ninas was college roommates with Clark Voorhees' daughter-in-law.

Evans eventually turned an abandoned chicken coop on the Voorhees land into a studio and built an extension to a shed where they could stay during their visits.

Later, in the mid-1960s, Evans and his second wife, Isabelle Boeschenstein von Steiger, built a new house on the Voorhees family property. It was designed by a Yale architecture student.

The Florence Griswold exhibition gives viewers a peek inside that house. It shows how Evans didn't display art in the traditional sense but rather showcased the objects he collected - signs, driftwood, tractor seats. Several of those signs seen in photos are now part of the Walker Evans Archive at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Evans' fascination with hand-painted, almost primitive signs became a hallmark of his later life.

"He treated them as art in the same way he treated many other common things as art - common people and objects and places, and elevated their status the way he took photographs of them," says Burdan, who is also the Florence Griswold's assistant curator.

"So those unexpected road signs, advertising signs - considering them as a form of art is something he was doing long before the pop artists made that (idea) something the rest of the art world was considering."

Evans' oft-used method of procuring signs is amusingly recounted in the exhibition. It's described thus: "Often with the assistance of his Yale students and colleagues, Evans gathered - or liberated, as he sometimes called it - signs, more or less legally."

One legal acquisition involved Chad Floyd, now a partner at Centerbrook Architects who had met Evans back when he was a Yale student. Floyd recalls helping negotiate the transfer of a sign that had captured Evans' fancy. The huge sign of a painted lobster hung outside a seafood restaurant on Chapel Street in New Haven. Floyd spoke with the restaurant owner, offering to replace that old, decaying sign. Floyd bought some marine plywood and painted it with a bright red lobster, and the exchange was made. The restaurant owner was happy, and so was Evans.

"He was absolutely ecstatic," Floyd says. "He gave me in exchange for it a wonderful photograph, which is in the exhibit."

Floyd recalls Evans being spritely and natty - and interested in the people around him.

As for his photography, Floyd distinctly remembers Evans using a Polaroid. In fact, he recalls that the Polaroid company made an endless supply of film and cameras available to Evans.

"He was gleefully going around, using up all this film. ... What he especially loved was to get in the car and just go out in the countryside and find some, you know, sign stuck to a fence that he liked and photograph it," Floyd says.

Burdan says that he made thousands of Polaroids in the last 14 months or so of his life. That marked a renewed focus on photography for Evans, whose output had dwindled in the 1960s, especially after he left his position as staff photographer at Fortune magazine. The credit for his reinvigorated interest was this new technology.

Burdan says it's striking "that someone at that level of sophistication when it came to photography and cameras - someone who's already part of the history of photography - would have taken a chance with a new-fangled kind of (technology). He even called it a toy at first."

"The Exacting Eye of Walker Evans" does, of course, also include Evans' most famous photos, of those rural Southern sharecroppers. During the summer of 1936, Evans and writer James Agee travelled south to write about tenant farming for Fortune magazine's Life and Circumstances series. (That series was meant to remind Fortune readers about the realities of the Depression.) For two months, the duo lived with the Burroughs family in Alabama, documenting their world. Fortune, though, rejected the piece "on literary grounds." Instead, Agee and Evans turned it all into a book, 1941's "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men."

Evans' images, Burdan says, "become what people think of when they think of the Great Depression. There are a few iconic images, and his are among them."

Burdan read a recent blog about the Occupy Wall Street movement, and it referred to an Evans photo of sharecroppers' shoes. So his images are still "informing how we think about poverty, even today," she says.

As for his photography style, Evans described it as lyric documentary. What that meant, Burdan says, is trying "to capture a scene, an object, a portrait - but also to do it in a beautiful manner, in a manner that could be inspiring, that could convey emotion, that could convey the mood of a scene, in addition to reporting what it looked like. In a way, he was reporting what it was like to him, his interpretation of the scene."

Beyond that, Floyd says, "He was very interested in America as a subject matter for himself as an artist. That's pretty obvious looking at his work, I guess. But I think that aspect of him is extremely interesting. As a result of his consistent interest in that, he really amassed a lot of very iconic images of 20th-century America. Remarkable man, truly."

Walker Evans, “Kitchen Corner, Tenant Farmhouse, Hale County, Alabama,” 1936. Private collection.
Walker Evans, “Kitchen Corner, Tenant Farmhouse, Hale County, Alabama,” 1936. Private collection.
Walker Evans,
Walker Evans, "Untitled" (Jerry Thompson, Martha’s Vineyard), September 27, 1974. Yale University Art Gallery, lent by Eliza Mabry and Jonathan Gibson.

IF YOU GO

What: "The Exacting Eye of Walker Evans"

Where: Florence Griswold Museum, 96 Lyme St., Old Lyme

When: Through Jan. 29; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tues.-Sat. and 1-5 p.m. Sun.

Admission: $9 adults, $8 seniors, $7 students, free ages 12 and under

Contact: (860) 434-5542, flogris.org

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