Walker Evans at the VAG

November 2, 2016
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Walker Evans: Depth of Field features over 200 photographs from the 1920s to the 1970s

American photographer Walker Evans shaped the history of 20th century photography with his iconic images made in the American South during the Great Depression. His work played a major role in solidifying the term we now refer to as documentary photography. Walker Evans: Depth of Field is a Vancouver Art Gallery exhibition that addresses the full arc of his career and is the most comprehensive look at Evans’ work ever presented in Canada.

The anger and rhetoric emerging from millions of ‘Red State’ Americans has been building for decades. The current state of economic despair paired with stagnant wages, cultural conservatism and the adolescent whining of the so called alt right are embodied in a leader representing a huge number of disenfranchised Americans.  Walker Evans: Depth of Field parallels this current mood. But instead of portraying white, poor, Americans as uneducated rednecks, the show casts working class Americans in a light of dignity and respect.

Through his mix of formalism and modernism with splashes of pop-art, Evans portrays Americana with sensitivity and a particular eye for the threshold where class, capitalism and decay meet. In “Truck and Sign” we see three workers, on a street in New York City, unloading a large neon sign in a modern, uppercase font reading ‘D A M A G E D’. They are building a strong, new America with physical adjectives describing their country’s foundation.

The exhibition, which is the most thorough body of the artist’s work displayed in Canada yet, features a series of photographs taken in the 1930s for the Farm Security Administration documenting the lives of rural southerners. It’s this period where Evans created his most enduring and celebrated photographs. The large format print of “Sharecropper’s Family” portrays six family members sitting for the camera inside their ramshackle, dirt floor house. Below the bed lays an emaciated black cat, body turned away from the camera, cartoon like. On the bare walls a studio portrait of the family, perhaps in better times. Despite their filthy clothing, despite their scratches and bruises and what might otherwise seem a completely hopeless situation, the self possessed nature of this family shines through, skeptical yet intrigued by the camera. There’s an unmistakable honesty and calmness that emanates out of this photograph, assuring the viewer of optimism for the future and gratitude for the present.

Evans also travelled to Cuba where, in his documentary style, captured images of street life sympathetically framing his subjects. His series of coal workers on the docks in Havana particularly speak to the poise of the workers. There’s an instant familiarity in their faces, covered in soot encouraging your stare. “Dock Worker with Straw Hat and Cigar” shows a young man in a denim jacket, collar spread wide, beautiful straw brimmed hat on top of his head, cigar and toothpick casually hanging from his mouth. His eyes stare blankly at the camera with a nonchalant confidence beyond his years. It’s these moments where Walker Evans triumphs in his ability to connect the viewer and subject. In his own words he portrays “things as the are, and things as they were.”

What makes Evans’ work so relevant today is it’s humanity. Throughout all his work there is an element of relatableness.  Any of these individuals could be your friend or neighbour. You feel like you’ve seen them before. Their expressions are candid, curious with as much interest in knowing you as you them. At a time when the world is so politically and culturally divided, an injection of Walker Evans’ even handed approach cuts through current tensions, confronts our biases and grounds us with its beauty.

What: Walker Evans: Depth of Field
Where: Vancouver Art Gallery
When: October 29, 2016 to January 22, 2017