Brighton Photo Biennial 2006 - Walker Evans At The Gardner Arts Centre

By Johnny Wilson | 30 October 2006
a black and white photograph of people sat in deck chairs on a windy pier

Walker Evans from Walker Evans: England, 1973. Walker Evans Archive, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Johnny Wilson enjoys the two sides of American photographer Walker Evans showing at the Gardner Arts Centre until November 26 2006 as part of the Brighton Photo Biennial.

The American photographer Walker Evans is lauded as one of the great documenters of the American Depression, but an exhibition at the Gardner Arts Centre in Brighton shows he was also a staunch Anglophile who revelled in capturing on film all things British.

The show, entitled Walker Evans, England 1973, will run until November 26 as a complement to Evans’ work in the other Biennial show, Nothing Personal, at Brighton Museum, and it shows an altogether different side of his work.

Evans loved Britain and everything about it, as James Sterne wrote in his London Magazine eulogy in 1977. “Evans was a passionate Anglophile. He loved this country’s literature, its eccentric public customs, its titles, honours and colourful ceremonies.”

However, before looking at the later British works, it is best to look at his earlier photographs, on display here, to see just how much his style and choice of subject matter changed through time.

a black and white photograph of a pillar with peeling paint on it and the number 80

Walker Evans from Walker Evans: England, 1973. Walker Evans Archive, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Evans’ first forged his name with his work in the 1930s for the US government as an employee of the newly formed Farm Security Administration. This body, set up at the behest of the then President Franklin D Roosevelt, had a mandate to capture on film the state of the nation at its lowest ebb.

He used a backdrop of depressed towns in which to snap a variety of shop fronts, interiors, churches and shacks. Mirroring the paintings of Edward Hopper, such photos as General Store Interior in Mondeville, Georgia (1936) show a slice of pure Americana curiously devoid of people.

Another picture, Cotton Room, Frank Tengle’s Farm, Hale County, Alabama (1935/6) is all the more sad as the room though lifeless has a scratched sign above the hearth stating ‘Every lady is welcome’. When all else was gone they still had chivalry.

The solemn scenes are powerful and the paucity of life gives the impression that great swathes of the nation had effectively ‘died’. When people are present in pictures such as in Vicksburg Street, Mississippi, (1936) they look like they have wandered onto some alien sound stage where they are not wanted.

a black and white photograph of woman sitting by a table in a white wood panelled room

Walker Evans from Walker Evans: England, 1973. Walker Evans Archive, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

His cold elegant style was greatly in demand in American magazines such as Fortune from 1934 to 1965 and a variety of these are on display highlighting his fascination with architecture.

This early detachment contrasts heavily with the featured photos taken in southern England two years before his death in 1973. Shown primarily here as a series of stills in a slide show they are a lot more relaxed and indicate how Evans increasingly wanted to photograph people as he approached his death.

Though he only ever had 10 photographs published of his near 30-year love affair with the UK there is a raft of images (some published, some not) that show his love for all our peculiarities. From lovingly crafted images of Brighton Pavilion to friends relaxed while picnicking they show a craftsman in love with his subjects.

As he entered the last creative phase of his life Evans took more than 2,650 photos using a Polaroid SX-70 showing he was still experimenting at this stage. The colour close-ups in a book of his later work, called Polaroids, come as quite a surprise after all the sombre black and white shots.

This is an intimate exhibition that allows you to see into the changing soul of a man as he turns from objective observer to emotionally involved kinsman.

See the Brighton Photo Biennial Website for more information.

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