Putting the Walker Evans Archive in Order
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
On December 18, the Metropolitan Museum of Art announced that it had acquired the complete archive of photographer Diane Arbus (1923-71). The archive included “hundreds of early and unique photographs by Arbus, negatives and contact prints of 7,500 rolls of film, glassine print sleeves annotated by the artist, as well as her photography collection, library, and personal papers including appointment books, notebooks, correspondence, writings, and ephemera.” In other words, a lot of stuff. Sorting it all out and cataloging it item by item will take years, but the person responsible for overseeing this long-term effort has had plenty of practice. Jeff Rosenheim, a curator in the museum’s Department of Photography, gained valuable experience as the conservator of the Walker Evans Archive, also at the Met.
It took six years, from the time the Met acquired it in 1994 until 2000, for the Evans Archive database to become accessible, and it was not until late last year that it was accessible online. Mr. Rosenheim was uniquely qualified to oversee this project because of his long familiarity with Evans’s work; he had first encountered the archive material while still an undergraduate at Yale. When Evans, who ended his career as a teacher at Yale, died in 1975, the university became the default custodian of much of his estate, and in 1984, Mr. Rosenheim, then a college junior, used it to organize an exhibition that opened in Valencia, Spain. He also studied with Richard Benson and Alan Trachtenberg, both of whom had been close with Evans when he was at Yale. Mr. Trachtenberg is well known as the author of “Reading American Photographs: Images as History, Mathew Brady to Walker Evans,” a book that analyzes photographs and the careers of photographers for what they tell us about their times.
The executor of the Evans estate, John Hill, approached the Met and the Getty museums in 1992 to see if either was interested in acquiring the archives. After two years of negotiations among the Met, Mr. Hill, Evans’s three beneficiaries, and their lawyers, arrangements were concluded. In 1994, Mr. Rosenheim was given a large room and set to work; it took several years just to see what was in the estate. Evans was a “pack rat,” Mr. Rosenheim said. “He kept everything, but he kept it in turmoil.” Evans, for instance, had no retrieval system for filing his negatives. Sorting out his extensive correspondence and arranging it in chronological order was another major project. Mr. Rosenheim had one assistant and the frequent help of volunteers and interns, a heterogeneous bunch of different ages and various backgrounds who wanted to be involved.
The archive’s contents are astonishing: approximately 30,000 black-and-white negatives, including sheet film in various sizes, as well as 120 mm and 35 mm rolls; 10,000 color negatives, Kodachromes and Ektachromes; about 20 linear feet of papers, including personal and business correspondence; proof sheets; annotated negative envelopes; 9,000 picture postcards; works by other artists, such as fellow FSA photographer Ben Shahn; 500 books; printed materials, including maps and medical illustrations; bottle caps; driftwood; a print of a movie he made when he signed aboard a sailboat for a trip to Tahiti, and 100 signs. (Evans drove around Connecticut with a ladder, tools, and students, whom he had liberate the signs he found interesting.) The estate had contained 2,600 color photographs made with the SX-70 camera the Polaroid Corporation gave Evans, but the beneficiaries retained those except for 150 the Met purchased. The archive contains no prints; Evans was always worried about money, and by 1974 had sold all he had.
The negatives are the heart of the archive because they provide insight into the artist’s intentions and working methods. Archiving the negatives presented two problems: identifying them and, where necessary, restoring them. Evans had used glass-plate negatives in his view camera when he began photographing with it, but switched to nitrate-based negatives when they became available. The early nitrate negatives, however, were not stable, and over time the plastic base separated from the gelatin layer containing the silver image; they looked like corrugated cardboard. The only person capable of dealing with this was the director of the Chicago Albumen Works (now of Housatonic, Mass.), Doug Munson, who spent several years restoring the hundreds of negatives that needed work.
Evans ordinarily loaded his own 35 mm cartridges with bulk film on which the individual frames were not numbered. After he developed the film, he cut it into strips of three or four frames for printing. Mr. Rosenheim was tasked with figuring out which of these little strips were all part of the same roll, as well as where, when, and in which order the rolls were taken. For this, he employed shrewd detective work, site visits, and forensic skills. He tried to match the cuts of abutting strips. He studied shadows to help determine the time of day. He researched the dates of newspaper headlines and magazine covers visible in the pictures. The resulting data, inventoried in a Dewey Decimal-like system Mr. Rosenheim devised, make it possible to locate variant shots of the same subject.
In 2000, the Met had a major Walker Evans exhibition which Mr. Rosenheim curated and for which he co-authored the catalog, as well as co-authoring “Unclassified: A Walker Evans Anthology: Selections from the Walker Evans Archive at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.” Much of the material is available at metmuseum.org/special/walkerevans/archive.htm. As he walked me to the museum exit, Mr. Rosenheim stressed that the importance of the archive was not just as an aid to appreciating the photographer’s art, but that it also provides rich insights into Walker Evans’s times, the tumultuous middle of the American 20th century.
The scattered parts of the Diane Arbus Archive are being gathered together so Mr. Rosenheim can get back to work.