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Walker Evans’s Vernacular America

Walker Evans,” a new show that opens September 30 and runs until February 4, 2018  at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, looks that the celebrated photographer’s longstanding interest the surface of everyday life. The show presents more than 300 prints, made from the 1920s to the 1970s, along with objects including Evans’s paintings, postcards from his 10,000-piece collection, and his person scrapbook. In a statement, Clément Chéroux, senior curator of photography at SFMOMA, says the show was conceived as “a complete retrospective” that highlights Evans’s fascination with American popular culture. “Evans was intrigued by the vernacular as both a subject and a method. By elevating it to the rank of art, he created a unique body of work celebrating the beauty of everyday life.”

Among the focuses of the show are text-based images that Evans made throughout his career, whether in the form of photographs of hand-painted signs at roadside stands, or images showing  advertising posters that covered city walls. Evans was the son of an advertising executive, and he often photographed advertisements up close or in context, “as if to preserve them for posterity,” the museum writes. (His interest sometimes extended beyond taking pictures. The museum writes, “People who knew him reported that after photographing an enameled advertising sign in situ, he oftentimes made off with it.”) For Evans, “advertising was a modern form of poetry.”

Evans’s interest in the vernacular extended to a fascination with the styles of applied photography, such as architectural photography, catalogue and postcard photography and studio portraiture. The museum writes, “For Evans, the vernacular was not only a subject but also a method,” and he often took on the characteristics of other genres to make is own work. “To take his photographs of wooden churches he became an architectural photographer for the duration of the project. To capture passersby he operated like a street photographer, popping up in front of his subjects and taking their pictures. And for his series of images of tools, metal chairs, and African masks he made himself into a catalogue photographer who specialized in product shots.”

Together, the show presents a comprehensive look at Evans’s 50 year project documenting and distilling “the essence of life in America,” the museum writes, “leaving a legacy that continues to influence generations of contemporary photographers and artists.”

Related Stories:
George Tice’s New Jersey Nostalgia
California Vernacular
Interview: SFMOMA’s Sandra Phillips (for PDN subscribers; login required)

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