Dedicated to covering the visual arts community in Connecticut.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Walker Evans photos a glimpse into the past

Jennifer Jane Gallery
838 Whalley Ave., New Haven, (203) 494-9905
Rarely Seen Works by Walker Evans
Through Oct. 6, 2008

The Walker Evans photographs at the Jennifer Jane Gallery were printed using several different processes. Some are hand-printed copper plate gravure from Evans' original negatives. Nine of 12 images from the "Message from the Interior" series are here shown in sheetfed gravure prints, printed under the supervision of Leslie Katz and Evans in 1966. There are eight gelatin silver prints—the traditional photographic print format—printed posthumously from Evans' original negatives. Most of the prints on display are contemporary carbon pigment prints from Martson Hill Editions.

Using the extended tonal range afforded by digital technology, Sven Martson and John T. Hill began printing Evans' images in this manner in 2000. Martson had printed for Evans and under his direction. Hill was a colleague of Evans at Yale and served as executor of Evans' estate.

Most striking are the very largest prints. Evans photographed in large format (for example, 8"x10" negatives). His negatives held a lot of information. Contemplating scenes such as those in "Gas Station, Reedsville, West Virginia, 1935" and "Birmingham Steel Mills and Workers' Houses, 1936" is to step back into time. The architecture, the signage, the texture of the brick of the building, the intersecting lines and angles of telephone poles and wires in "Gas Station" all bespeak a country at the crossroads. (Not unrelated to our present time where wars and economic and environmental collapse present the stark choice between progressive reform or fascism.)

The "Birminham Steel Mills" image is something else again. The contrast between the rickety shacks in the foreground—lined up in a row along the pock-marked dusty road—and the implacable solidity of the mill in the background is emblematic of the disparity in wealth and power. The road to the mill leads through privation. Notwithstanding the socioeconomic implications of the image, it has a defiant aesthetic grace. It's found in the lines, the geometry. The parallelism of the telephone poles and the steel mill smokestacks. The triangular zig zag of the roofs of the workers' hovels. There can be beauty in desolation.

That Evans' photographic gaze was an empathetic one can be seen in images like "Coal Miner's House, Scott's Run, West Virginia, 1935." The image world of consumer capitalism has invaded this humble home—large advertising blow-ups of Santa Claus and happy consumers paper over a corner of the room. But Evans portrays the shoeless boy with a measure of stoic dignity. His poverty is a riposte to the false cheer of the advertisements: documentary confronting lies with the truth.

These are documents of a time long gone. They aren't often on view outside of books. Evans was a practicing photojournalist on the payroll of government propagandists at the New Deal Farm Security Administration (at least for some of these images). But he created art.


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