Walker Evans at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Walker Evans, Self-Portrait, 1927.  © Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

At the start of SFMOMA’s deep-dive Walker Evans retrospective, on view through February 4, there’s an artfully blurred photo booth self-portrait. The 1927 picture has an ebullient energy that’s pure selfie – telegraphing that this formidable historical show has surprisingly contemporary relevance. Evans was clearly interested in the vernacular, and his work resonates in the age of Instagram, when delightful and mundane images of ordinary moments flood our lives. The exhibition is chock full of photographs and ephemera – Evans was a collector of postcards and signage – that bring to mind countless examples of artistic strategies employed by subsequent photographers (street photography, typologies, pop art, New Topographics, conceptual strategies, and questioning the veracity of the documentary image).

Originally organized for the Centre Pompidou by Clément Chéroux, SFMOMA’s new senior curator of photography, the show mixes chronology and themes to clarify Evans’s trajectory. The show is split into two parts – the first reveals a sense of visual wanderlust and self-discovery and wisely includes a room with vernacular signage that Evans collected, along with shots, taken by others, of his living room, which exudes a timeless taste for eclectic collections.  Not far off are photographs of junkyards and street refuse that anticipate the work of Anthony Hernandez and Richard Misrach.

Walker Evans, Allie Mae Burroughs, Wife of a Cotton Sharecropper, Hale County, Alabama, 1936. © Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The Farm Security Administration work is in this section, and of course includes images from his 1938 exhibition and book American Photographs, among them his iconic 1936 portrait of Allie Mae Burroughs. An essay in the catalogue notes that Evans often worked collaboratively, and audio related to the Burroughs photographs, in which she describes his comings and goings, further humanizes Evans and makes his seemingly quiet, observant position seem less impassive than it initially appears.

Evans, however, is less a maker of masterworks than an influencer of approach, and part two illustrates the way he turned his eye to various subjects and attitudes – from covertly photographing passersby or subway riders to recasting himself as a product photographer shooting tools. Evans’s stint as an editor at Fortune is evidenced with actual magazines, open to spreads, while other series and references are offered in digital slide shows, increasing the number of works in this absorbing exhibition.