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Major Retrospective of the Work of Walker Evans Opens at Fotomuseum Winterthur
Salón, West Virginia, 1935. Gelatin silver print, ca. 1940. Private Collection. ©Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

WINTERTHUR.- With this major retrospective of the work of Walker Evans (1903–1975) Fotomuseum Winterthur pays homage to one of the twentieth century’s pre-eminent photographers. His insightful and detailed portrayals of American life, especially his images of rural poverty during the Great Depression, made photographic history and went on to influence countless photographers. The 130 works in this retrospective exhibition represent every phase of his career: his early street photographs of the 1920s, his poignant documentation of 1930s America and pre-revolutionary Cuba, his landscapes and architectural photography, his subway portraits, storefronts, signage, and more besides.

On his return from France, where he had tried unsuccessfully to launch a literary career inspired by his love of Flaubert and Baudelaire, Walker Evans turned to photography. From the very start, with his keen eye for street life and the visual freshness of his unexpected slant on what he saw, his work spoke the language of European Modernism. But it was not long before Evans found his true voice – and it was at once profoundly personal and unequivocally American.

Some years before, the direct, undistorted and innovative gaze of Eugène Atget (1857-1927), whose work Evans knew and admired, had quietly paved the way for the split between documentary auteur photography and the purely descriptive photographic tradition. Atget’s unconventional angles, his de-centralised view and his focus on the seemingly trivial all had a major impact on Evans.

Walker Evans’ work is a far remove from what had, until then, been accepted as art photography. He was not interested in superficial beauty, but in a new objectivity. He subscribed to a style that observed undistorted facts and sought to capture things precisely as they were, seemingly without intervention, emotion or idealisation. For the first time in art photography, there were such unusual subjects as a pair of old boots or a subway passenger lost in thought. The artistic quality was based solely on the clarity, intelligence and authenticity of the photographer’s gaze. In this, Walker Evans’ oeuvre represents both a high point and a turning point in the formal and visual evolution of photography.

As the creator of this new, direct style, often referred to as straight photography, which drew upon scenes of sometimes blatant banality and rolled back the boundaries between the ‘important’ and the ‘trivial’, Walker Evans introduced the aesthetics of Modernism into American photography. This seemingly cold detachment spawned a style rich in expressive substance that was not only capable of embracing the lyricism and complexity of the American tradition, but of doing so without a trace of false romanticism, sentimentality or nostalgia. At long last, there was a forward-looking and enduring alternative to the traditional conventions of photography.

The exhibition has been organized by the Fundación MAPFRE in Madrid and curated by Jeff L. Rosenheim (curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York) in collaboration with Carlos Gollonet. The curator is Urs Stahel, Director Fotomuseum Winterthur.

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