For a moment nearly as brief as the production of a Polaroid photograph, the works of American photographer Walker Evans were brought out on display yesterday at the Yale University Art Gallery.
Wednesday afternoon, snapshots of Evans’s final work were displayed at the gallery to an audience of roughly 20 students, faculty and art aficionados. The work was shown as part of a talk delivered by Katherine Alcauskas, who until Wednesday was the Florence B. Selden fellow of the gallery’s Department of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs. The talk was a unique opportunity for scholars of Evans’s work to see his Polaroids, which are normally kept off display due to their sensitivity to light.
“His photographs monumentalized ‘colloquial’ images that were not necessarily the bastions of America,” Alcauskas said. “People asked, ‘Why is this art? Why would you photograph this?’”
Alcauskas began the talk by giving a brief biography of Evans — who was a professor of photography at Yale from the mid-1960s until his death in 1975, and who was primarily known for his shots taken during the Great Depression. But in his final years, he abandoned all other types of cameras for the Polaroid. Alcauskas also discussed Evans’s photographs for the Farm Security Administration, his famous work for Fortune magazine and his clandestine shots of New York subway passengers.
Among Alcauskas’ primary focuses during the talk was the “dichotomy” between critics with regard to Evans’ Polaroids: While some consider them to be an integral part of his work, others ignore them as “snapshotty,” or an “extenuation to his lifework,” said Alcauskas. She also noted the art sphere’s initial perception that his earlier work — photos of run-down buildings and everyday people — was seen as documentary photographs, but not art. This was a concept Evans himself struggled with during his career.
“How much impact the artist has; what is art and what documentary,” Alcauskas said.
Later in his career, in 1973 when he acquired his first Polaroid camera, Alcauskas said Evans became interested in showing “the passage of time,” often taking successive photographs without pausing to review his shots. Many of Evans’ Polaroids feature young women, but he also photographed children, men and the elderly. Alcauskas explained that although he is not known for his portraits, they are strongly linked to his career.
“We need to focus on the Polaroids like a book,” Alcauskas said, adding that the body of Polaroids should be considered together and not as individual photos.
Some of the pictures are by Evans himself, while the rest are by others — whether or not they could use his camera was determined by their relationship with Evans. Alcauskas referred to Jerry Thompson ART ’73, Evans’ student and assistant, who had said that the Polaroids were Evans’ way of becoming intimate with people.
Two attendees interviewed following the talk said they were pleased with the presentation of Evans’ life and his later works.
SheShe He, a student at Hunter College in New York City who came to New Haven for the talk, said she was attending because it was relevant to one of her courses on anthropological representation in art.
“It was interesting how [Evans] reflects his relationship between the people in his life through his photography,” He said.
Evans’ use of Polaroids as an art product and not as preparation for other work was singled out by Susan Surface ARC ’12, who said she was interested to see Polaroids used “as the object of art itself, rather than preparation for other work.”
Evans was originally born in St. Louis, Mo., and attended high school at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass.