Walker Evans: Carbon and Silver

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Sharecropper’s family, Hale County, Alabama, 1935
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Alabama Cotton Tenant Farmer’s Wife (Allie Mae Burroughs), 1936

In Walker Evans: Carbon and Silver, exhibition curator John T. Hill presents a new perspective on this work by comparing gelatin silver contact prints with contemporary ink-jet prints made from digital files. The enlarged prints reveal intricate details less accessible in the earlier versions of the images, including gelatin silver prints, books and magazines.

This process translates Evans’s work with faithfulness to the photographer’s style and interests. The precision of digital technology corresponds with Evans’s drive for clarity in presenting information versus emotive and stylized “fine art” prints.

The majority of these images were selected by Evans for two of his most important books, American Photographs (1938) and Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941). The original source of most images in this exhibition is the Library of Congress. Those not directly from the LOC archive come from the generosity of private collectors and dealers.

Although these are some of Walker Evans’ most celebrated works, ironically they are those he personally printed least. As a federally employed photographer in 1935–36, he was obliged to promptly submit his negatives, if not his prints, to the Farm Security Administration. Later, that archive was passed to the Library of Congress. Print quality from that agency varied greatly depending on workloads and the ability of technicians. After many years of hard use, the original negatives have been retired.

Digital files of these images have been interpreted by two photographers who worked with Evans. Sven Martson was a friend of Evans and printed under his supervision. John T. Hill taught with Evans at the Yale School of Art and was the executor of his Estate. Martson and Hill have applied their experience in traditional gelatin silver printing to ink-jet printing driven by digital technology. The ink-jet prints reflect the style of Evans’ published images, which he zealously controlled. It seems safe to assume he would easily accept this new technology in the same manner he embraced Polaroid technology.

A longer tonal scale and more precise control of values are two of the significant advantages of digital technology. Maintaining elusive information in dark and light areas is often difficult or impossible with gelatin silver materials. This information is now printable. One might say that the song remains the same, but certain subtle notes are now heard more clearly.

This exhibition is made possible in part by The Lisette Model Foundation and The Max and Victoria Dreyfus Foundation, Inc...