Walker Evans Photos of Everyday America

 

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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.

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Roadside Stand Near Birmingham/Roadside Store Between Tuscaloosa and Greensboro, Alabama, 1936. 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.

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A Photo of Billy the Kid Bought for $10 at a Flea Market May Be Worth Millions

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This tintype shows what historians believe is a photo of outlaw Billy the Kid, second from left, and Pat Garrett, far right, taken in 1880. Creditvia Frank Abrams

At a flea market six years ago, a North Carolina lawyer named Frank Abrams unknowingly bought a rare photograph that experts say shows Billy the Kid relaxing with the man who would eventually kill him.

Billy the Kid, one of the best-known outlaws in American history, is thought to be there in the back, second from the left. The man all the way to the right is Pat Garrett, who would soon become the sheriff of Lincoln County, N.M., and — the story goes — shoot the outlaw dead in a darkened room.

The men appear on a tintype that is about the size of a man’s palm. (Tintypes are photographic images produced on thin sheets of metal. They became popular during the late 19th century and, as in this case, often show a version of reality that is reversed, left-to-right.)

In 2011, Mr. Abrams saw nothing more than a group of five men who looked like cowboys. He considered it a strange find, since most tintypes that ended up in North Carolina harkened back to the American South, not the Wild West. So he bought it for $10, he said in a phone interview, and put it up in his home. It hung in a room where he hosted Airbnb guests. Mr. Abrams used to jokingly tell them that it was a picture of Jesse James.

A similar find — a tintype that experts said showed Billy the Kid playing croquet with friends — was valued at around $5 million in 2015. The discovery motivated Mr. Abrams to take a closer look at his own picture.

He turned to Google and eventually zeroed in on the man on the right with the severe features and the dark hat. “Oh my gosh,” he recalled saying. “That is Pat Garrett in my picture.”

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Why Richard Avedon’s Work Has Never Been More Relevant

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