Uncomfortably Beautiful

WALKER EVANS IN NEW YORK

More than eighty of Walker Evans’s iconic black-and-white photographs of Southern sharecroppers and Northern industrial towns-taken under the auspices of the Farm Security Administration in 1935-36-are on display at the UBS Gallery in Manhattan through November 9. The exhibit is noteworthy in its subject matter and its artistry. By incorporating digital techniques that allow for crisp ink-jet prints and previously unattainable enlargements, it would have been a revelation to Evans himself.

Organized by the Yale University School of Art, the exhibit is curated by John T. Hill and Sven Martson, both of whom worked with Evans (1903-75). That collaboration is pivotal because the exhibit relies on technologies unavailable to Evans that could conceivably be used to alter his work. As Hill observes in a program note, “In the world of ink-jet printing, digital files are capable of stunning brilliance as well as remarkable mischief.” Whereas Evans employed gelatin silver prints (a number of which are included to offer continuity and contrast in the exhibit), the show features digital representations made from Evans’s original negatives. One can only imagine what he would have achieved using these newer techniques. Still, brilliance rather than mischief reigns in the UBS exhibit. As New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman wrote (August 23), “These are, I must say, almost uncomfortably beautiful” pictures.

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About the Author

Patrick Jordan is a former managing editor of Commonweal.