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UB to Present Tribute to Photographer Walker Evans

Release Date: March 17, 1998

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Gifted, handsome, erudite and -- at least for a time -- a prima facie artistic anarchist, photographer Walker Evans was born of considerable privilege and developed into a mainstream, if controversial, artist best known for documenting the lives of Depression-era Americans.

Although Evans also produced a body of photographs of American folk architecture, his best-known subjects were the rural poor of the 1930s. His realistic style represented their dignity and the desperation of their conditions. The apparent artlessness of his representations was a product of the photographer's perspective, but it lent a powerful documentary flavor to Evans' portrait of pre-World War II America. It continues to raise important questions about the documentary style and the relationship of the photographer to his subject.

Evans' early work will be the subject of a free public exhibition from March 20 through April 24 in the University at Buffalo Art Gallery in the Center for the Arts on the North (Amherst) Campus. Gallery hours are Wednesdays through Saturdays from 10:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Sundays from 12-5 p.m.

The exhibit, "Walker Evans: Public Photographs, 1935-37," will feature his best-known material, produced during Evans' stint with the photographic project sponsored by the New Deal's Resettlement Administration (RA), later called the Farm Security Administration.

UB also will present "Walker Evans: Counterspy," a free public symposium on photographic work and the documentary imagination, from 1-5 p.m. on March 28 in the Screening Room (Rm. 112) of the Center for the Arts.

Participating in the symposium will be sociologist Howard Becker of the University of Washington, author of "Outsiders" (1962), "Art Worlds" (1982) and "Exploring Society Philosophically," and award-winning visual artist William Christenberry, fellow photographer and a friend of Walker Evans. A native of Hale County, Ala., where Evans took his first photos for "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men," Christenberry later collaborated with Evans to produce photos published in Thomas W. Southall's "Of Times and Place: Walker Evans and William Christenberry" (1990).

The panel also will include photographer and anthropologist J. David Sapir of the University of West Virginia, editor of Visual Anthropology Review and operator of "Fixing Shadows," a lively Web site devoted to photography.

Joining Sapir, Becker and Christenberry will be Jerry Thompson a student, working associate and close friend of Walker Evans who wrote the memoir "The Last Years of Walker Evans" (1997), and Bruce Jackson, SUNY Distinguished Professor in the Department of English and Samuel L. Capen Professor of American Culture at UB, where he directs the Center for Studies in American Culture.

The photos in the exhibition are not only Evans' most famous, but are among the most vivid and powerful images of America ever created. Many of them were included in the 1937 book, "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men," a notable collaboration with writer James Agee. The book became an American cultural icon in the 1960s, speaking as it did to the rebirth of concern for the poor and disenfranchised of rural America.

Evans' work for the RA demonstrated his conviction that photography could be both a research method and an art form. It also raised questions about the relationship between the subjectivity and objectivity of the photographer himself. Evans created images that seem to reflect no subjectivity at all -- photos that seem to lack the presence of an author. In fact, however, the camera is no more than a tool. Regardless of how much it seems to document the hard-edged facts of a historical moment, a photograph necessarily incorporates the intention of the photographer.

To produce the pictures that now identify his canon, Evans traveled over much of the northeastern and southeastern United States, photographing the houses of steelworkers in Pennsylvania and Alabama, farms in Mississippi, houses in Louisiana, worn faces in Arkansas and West Virginia, flood victims in Tennessee and Kentucky.

The political agenda of the New Deal, however, was to project a better future, one of hope. In keeping with this, the RA photographers were expected to document the lives of those who had raised themselves up out of miserable conditions by their own bootstraps.

Evans' portraits, affecting as they were, did not sail well in the winds of prevailing government propaganda. He had his own agenda, which was to describe a time, a place and a people ground down by poverty and crippled by lack of hope. He was dismissed from the RA project in 1937. The reasons for his dismissal are still the subject of academic discussion.

During World War II, Evans chronicled workers and industry for several large national magazines and later produced a remarkable series of photographs taken in the New York City subways.

He became a staff photographer for the financial magazine Fortune in 1945, where he continued for 20 years as associate editor. Following his retirement, Evans taught graphic design at Yale University until his death in 1975.

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