SFMOMA: Let’s start with the concept of the American vernacular. How does it feature in the work of Evans and Rauschenberg?
Clément Chéroux: It’s a very useful word for a discussion of Walker Evans, even if Evans himself hardly ever used it. First, it carries connotations of the utilitarian, something to be used for something. Second, it’s always related to a specific place — perhaps a specific house, or the domestic realm in general, or a village or a country. And third, it always describes something popular. Not high culture, but low culture.
For Evans, the model was definitely the photographer Eugène Atget, who was interested in the Parisian vernacular. Evans discovered Atget in 1929 through Berenice Abbott, who had recently returned to the United States from Paris, where she had been working with Man Ray. At that time, Atget was living on the same street as Man Ray. In 1927, when Atget died, Abbott bought his entire archive, something like ten thousand prints and negatives (today they are housed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York). Atget’s work was a profoundly important visual influence for Evans.
I was very surprised to notice that one of Atget’s photographs, Boutiques, Marché aux Halles (1925), was in both Rauschenberg’s personal collection and Evans’s personal collection. We are showing the print from Walker Evans’s collection in the exhibition, and that particular print was made by Berenice Abbott!