An interesting and somewhat unexpected discovery – a collection of still life photos of African art taken by Walker Evans prior to his more famous traditional documentary work. The introductory essays make a number of claims about this work laying the basis for his subsequent “documentary style work. Although they are clearly very formally taken and composed I would have to admit to struggling to see too many overlaps. On the other hand I have no vested interest in establishing the set as a key part of the Evans canon – but perhaps I am being too cynical. What seems clearer is that completing the portfolio provided Evans with a number of important contacts who were to have an important role in his subsequent career.
How should we read them? A tricky question. From the text it seems that this was one of the first major exhibits of African art put on the American audiences, iseand that the objects were displayed in very simple “white cube” type surroundings. This is presumably intended to relate them to each other – and the formal compositions of the photos tend to support this. The absence of other context also seems to aestheticise the objects, so that they are seen as works of art rather than as religious icons or other more prosaic artefacts. This would also appear to fit the tone of the exhibition which was an early acknowledgement of the artistic traditions of the African continent.
A pdf catalogue is available on the MoMA website here: http://www.metmuseum.org/research/metpublications/Perfect_Documents_Walker_Evans_and_African_Art_1935. A more formal reference is given below.
Webb, V.-L. (2000). Perfect documents : Walker Evans and African art, 1935 / Virginia-Lee Webb. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art.