WALKER EVANS ARCHIVE/THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART, NYC
For nearly sixty years of his life, Walker Evans collected picture postcards. An exhibit of that collection, which by the time of Evans’s death in 1975 totaled some 9,000 items, is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City through May 25. In a telling gesture, a vitrine near the exhibit’s entrance houses objects from Evans’s other collections–bottle caps, beer tabs, driftwood, road signs–as well as postcard storage boxes and dividers with labels like “Street Scenes,” “Summer Hotels,” “Fancy Architecture,” “Railroad Stations,” “Monuments,” “Bridges” and “Curiosities.” Such categories could well classify Evans’s own photographs, from the stark, magisterial black-and-white pictures he took while working with the Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression to the haunting color images that he made with a Polaroid SX-70 Land Camera in the last years of his life. Evans is widely touted as having fully refined the documentary style of photography, a “styleless” or “artless” style that married simplicity of composition, devotion to the life of the vernacular and social awareness.
While the postcards clearly resonate with Evans’s photography, it’s worth asking whether the collection should be understood not as an archive of source texts but as an artistic project in its own right. After all, Evans’s first contact with the Museum of Modern Art, the institution that would vault him to wide esteem in the art world, was a project undertaken in 1936 featuring photographic images printed by Evans in the dimensions of postcards. (Examples of these small prints are on view at the Met; the project was abandoned in 1938.) A decade on, newly installed at Fortune as “special photographic editor,” Evans turned his first picture story into a portfolio of postcards from his collection. An unsigned response to the piece noted, “His selections are manifestly neither a gag nor a fad nor an amusing hobby; they perform exactly the same function as his photographs.”
Evans’s devotion to, and obsession with, indigenous forms, and his developing taste for vernacular objects worth collecting, were points of fierce pride. Friends and acquaintances sent Evans postcards in hopes theirs might be inducted into the rarefied lot of his collection, while his counterparts in the art and publishing world humored his interests, publishing several postcard-based photo essays and inviting him to lecture on the subject. To all suitors and facilitators Evans tended to play the part of the evangelist, arguing that the postcards were more than ephemera of an age gone by. Their very ordinariness was, to him, critical to their significance in telling the story of the United States. He was always at pains to prove that his interest in these documents wasn’t comedic or, worse, ironic. People did indeed appreciate the postcards, mostly because of the aura of the collector. This was a disappointment. Evans intended his collection to be more than an interesting tidbit; to him, it was an object lesson. The postcards exhibited a profound vision of American life, one he perhaps thought even superior to his own.