Throughout the retrospective for photographer Walker Evans at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the 400 photos and pieces of art radiate with a warm sense of familiarity. Visitors may recognize specific, iconic images, but the feeling also comes from Evans’ fixation on the American vernacular, a driving theme in the organization of this show. The two full galleries that make up the exhibit create the sense that one is stepping into a well-curated time-capsule of a faded but still thoroughly recognizable America.
Walker Evans, collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles; © Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
As a photographer, Evans was fascinated by everyday things, objects, and people—advertisements, catalogs, storefronts, street debris, graffiti, workers, strangers—that tend to blend into the background for most of us. He documented life around him, the monumental and mundane—photographing billboards as if he were collecting them, photographing Main Street as if he were shooting a postcard, secretly photographing fellow subway passengers, and making striking images of laborers going to or coming home from work. He studiously photographed junkyards and churches and trash in the street, relishing repetition in the everyday.
He documented America in a way that belies his obsessive collecting tendencies. The exhibit does an excellent job of mixing Evans’ photographs with the ephemera he collected as inspiration, from rusted, shot-up road signs to movie posters.