Evans worked for another Luce publication, Fortune, not known for photography. He achieved high artistry in carrying out the journalistic purpose of giving news of how people lived and worked. His photos for the unabashed chronicler of American business gave the publication a deeper and more self-searching perspective.
The Evans "Depth of Field" exhibit at Atlanta's High Museum gives a selection of the photographer's work for Fortune, including the familiar images from "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men," which never ran in the magazine, a familiar story retold in the explanatory panels.
James Agee was assigned by the magazine to write about the poverty stricken Alabama sharecroppers whose proud dignity Evans captured. Agee's grandiloquent prose was rejected, and "Now Let Us Praise Famous Men" emerged as a classic in 1960, when republished in book form.
The High exhibit shows another Fortune project that was published in the magazine: common tools. While Evans' cited quotes about the aesthetic value of tools are valid, the photos of types of wrenches don't achieve the artistic power of Evans' most famous work.
The exhibit is overly broad, with too few pieces from Evans' best periods, and too many from experiments that fell short. Poorly organized, with confusing and too brief explanatory panels, "Depth of Field" left me with a contrary impression of shallowness.
A disappointingly brief selection of "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" photos displays the strong emotional power that photos of tools can't. The most moving is a photo of a child's grave, which I didn't remember from the book.
The accompanying panel calls a portrait of a handsome young farmer "photo of a sharecropper." HIs family, including lovely children, is identified as "portrait of a sharecropper's family."Couldn't the museum have used the family's name?
Other facets include Evans' work documenting WPA projects to alleviate the Depression, affecting shots from a trip to Cuba, and his fascination with store displays, advertisements on walls and other "found objects" from American commercial culture.
Another highlight is a too small selection of portraits of New York City subway riders that Evans secretly shot in the late 1930s. The riders wear the stylish clothes of the period, their faces etched with worry, sorry, happiness, exhaustion. They are poignantly alive, almost speaking to us from a long vanished time, giving the message that our time too will be brief.
Later, taking the train home, I looked at my fellow passengers and imagined how they would appear in an Evans photograph. His best work catches the eternal in snatches of time.