A pair of worn work boots, a weathered sharecropper's face, a desolate corner store--everyday depictions of the South during the Depression make Walker Evans the Walt Whitman of photography.
But while Whitman is the self-proclaimed national poet--his ego solidly planted in every stanza--Evans is the silent observer who removes himself to make poetry of his subjects.
As Romanian-born poet Andrei Codrescu writes, Evans "showed us how to see America." The 49 photographs on display at the Orange County Museum of Art's satellite in South Coast Plaza are among the most iconic American pictures.
Returning from Paris, where he had spent his 20s, Evans began photographing for the Farm Security Administration, joining writer James Agee in Alabama in 1936 to document the lives of tenant farmers in the rural South.
The photographs in this exhibit--on loan from the Knoxville Museum of Art--include portraits of three sharecropper families, work originally commissioned by Fortune magazine.
The project evolved into a book, "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" which was published in 1941. Evans' photo essay is as integral to the narrative as Agee's text.
Fiercely suspicious of politics, Evans wanted his pictures of brutal poverty to prevail after their historical context was long gone.
"Even though the assignment was to document the lives of the farmers--to let other Americans know what was going on--he wanted his photographs to be transcendent of the moment," said Sarah Vure, assistant curator at the Orange County Museum of Art. "The photos give you a sense that they are truth."
In these portraits, family members share one pair of rugged boots or make do with rag bundles tied to their feet. They look unflinchingly at the camera--an invitation for the viewer to stare back at their essential dignity as human beings.
Evans does not impose a value judgment or make stereotypical assumptions about his subjects.
The 1936 portrait of Allie Mae Burroughs, the wife of a cotton sharecropper in Hale County, Alabama, is a simple, frontal close-up.
It displays an abundance of detail: The grain in the wood behind Burroughs' face sets off the lines around her eyes and mouth, revealing days of laboring in sunbaked cotton fields. Yet she commands no pity from the viewer.
"The [pictures] capture the reality of what was but are also psychological statements about the people," Vure said. "You almost feel like there's no photographer between you and her."
But the photographer's ability to remove himself from the picture is deceptive; his hand seems to be there in its composition.
Evans, who had a fascination with commercial signs and vernacular architecture, carefully designed every image, and what seem like snapshots are really intended to endure over time as art. In some pictures, such as the interior of a sharecropper's dilapidated home in Hale County, the composition is almost modernist in its simplicity.
Evans was also fond of adding layers of meaning to a photograph.
A picture of a road store, a shack with circus posters and Coca-Cola signs, is seemingly simple--just that, a corner store. But the juxtaposition of the familiar signs with an empty dirt road, makes the picture all the more desolate. Each image in Walker's careful compositions offers a variety of detail and tonal range--each is an aesthetic statement and a depiction of America at a particular moment in history.
"They still speak to us today, not only because they are historical, but because of his eye as a photographer they speak to us aesthetically," Vure said. "What makes these influential and important images is that they [fuse] documentary and style."
Today's maelstrom of images, from TV, advertising and the Internet, does not drown Evans' works. They are still poignant statements, Vure said.
Evans' photography is symbolic here and now. Its themes of abject poverty contrast with its surroundings--a mall dedicated to luxurious consumption in one of the nation's most affluent regions at one of the nation's most affluent periods, Vure said.
Despite his suspicion of politics, Evans has a vision of America and American lives.
"That's what elevates them--his vision," Vure said.
One of the most important things for a photographer to know is where to stand, Evans once said. As a humanist and an artist, Evans still stands unflinchingly, his vision imprinted for all time.
"The pictures are transcendent but not translucent," Vure said. "You can lose yourself in them for a very long time."
"Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" continues through May 7 at the Orange County Museum of Art at South Coast Plaza, 3333 Bristol St., Costa Mesa. Hours: Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturday 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Sunday 11 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Admission is free. Call (949) 759-1122. This show runs concurrently with an exhibition of his work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Born in St. Louis, in 1903, Walker Evans began his photographic career at 25 and had his first retrospective at New York's Museum of Modern Art at 35. "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" catapulted him to fame, and many later projects, such as his covert New York subway portraits and his sweeping cityscapes, were critically acclaimed. Evans served as an editor for Fortune and Time and was a professor of graphic art at Yale. He died in 1976.