Author’s Note: The term “Negro” was used historically to describe people of Black (sub-Saharan) African heritage, but it’s offensive use is unacceptable in contemporary practice. The term is repeated here in the context of historical exhibition and publication titles that are under discussion.
Walker Evans (1903-1975), an American photographer and photojournalist, arguably had the greatest influence on the evolution of photography in the 20th century. He gained recognition for moving beyond the highly aestheticized, artistic photography that preceded his era, with his own constructed images of an unidealized American life throughout the Great Depression.
In 1935, Roy Stryker hired Evans to photograph for the Resettlement Administration and later Farm Security Administration, which were New Deal era projects tasked with creating a pictorial record of American life. Developed out of a program designed to lift farmers out of poverty during the Depression, the documentary photography project included seminal artists including Dorothea Lange, Arthur Rothstein, Ben Shahn, Marion Post Wolcott, Gordon Parks, among others. Running until 1944, it remains one of the largest documentary projects ever undertaken.
The photographs that Evans made during this time show a commitment to an unsentimental style that rejects the dramatics in favor of clearly described and distinctive domestic experiences. Evans photographed for the FSA during the early years of its run and in 1938, influential curator Lincoln Kirstein included many of these works in the exhibition Walker Evans: American Photographs. The exhibition was the first single-photographer exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art and the accompanying catalogue is often held as one of the most important photobooks in the history of photography.
Directly preceding his celebrated work for the FSA, Alfred H. Barr the first director of MoMA, commissioned Evans to prepare photographs of over 600 sculptures–many of them masterpieces–that were arriving for the 1935 exhibition African Negro Art. This was the first example of an American art museum displaying African artifacts for their aesthetic qualities rather than ethnographic concerns and has been acknowledged as the catalyst for placing African Art within in the historical context of Western art. MoMA and Evans produced seventeen copies of African Negro Art for an ensuing portfolio of 477 photographs that were to be offered to museums and educational institutions.
Following in the footsteps of Charles Sheeler, who fifteen years prior photographed the collection of art collector John Quinn for the portfolio and publication African Negro Wood Sculpture, Evans was tasked with documenting the incoming loans in a presentation to serve as an archival record of the exhibition. Unlike Sheeler, who used studio lighting to create dramatic modernist reinterpretations of the objects he photographed, Evans was tasked with creating an educational experience. The resulting photographs document their subjects in a diffuse lighting with the goal of allowing the viewer to have uninterrupted access to the material being photographed. He utilized the frame by constructing tightly cropped compositions that removed any context from the objects, creating his own modernist interpretation.
In the years that have passed since Evans produced the photographs for African Negro Art, our understanding and appreciation of art and photography have evolved. At the time they were made, cultural property laws and protections were still in their infancy and the marketplace for African antiquities was wide open to Western collectors and institutions, creating ramifications that are being confronted to this day. While Evans’s goal was to create a document with educational merit, and they certainly are reference points for contemporary scholars, they can also be read as a reflection of the time in which they were created.
Viewers today can appreciate the aesthetic qualities of the photographs and a close look can show stylistic comparisons to many of the iconic works that Evans produced throughout his long career. Find examples of his photography and many more representations similar to the sculptures in our auctions.
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