Monday, October 1, 2012

Walker Evans: American Photographs

In keeping with my track record of reviewing books only decades after they are published, I will now record my thoughts on the 75th anniversary edition of Walker Evans' seminal book, American Photographs.

This book contains 87 photographs, in two sections. They are presented with no accompanying text whatsoever, only a number referring to a very brief descriptive text for each photograph at the end of each of the two sections. The reproductions are quite nice, and the book is incredibly cheap - less than $US25 at the moment. It might be one of the best values out there.

There are two essays included with the current edition. The first, on the making of the current edition, is a fascinating glimpse into the problems inherent in re-making a book of photographs after 25 years. Technology advances, and photographs are lost or harder to obtain. The second essay was included in the original edition, and is a discussion of the work and the photographer, written by a friend of Evans, Lincoln Kerstein. I found it somewhat labored and not particularly interesting. It is probably more of interest for the snapshot it gives us of how Evans was viewed in his time, than of much current interest.

I have mostly been familiar with Evans through is FSA work, and the work he did nominally for the FSA but in reality for the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (which was a collaboration with James Agee). The current volume gives us a much broader view of the photographer's work. These photographs were, for the most part, selected for the book by Evans himself to accompany an exhibit of his photographs in 1938, so we're probably still not looking at a fully representative view of his work.

The first thing that struck me, looking through this work, was how relatively poor it was. This is not to say the work is bad, it certainly is not. However, it fares poorly when stacked up next to the towering, gigantic, monumental work he did for the book with Agee. The work is still excellent and well worth your time to look at carefully. The second thing that struck me was the breadth of Evans' work. There are at least two different photographers in Walker Evans, the view camera man and the 35mm man. While it's not a perfect correlation, the work with the smaller camera is much looser, in some sense. There's a number of images that flirt with "street" while being, ultimately, documentary. The view camera work is generally more formal, each image having a very deliberate feeling of structure.

The subject matter is all over the place. The title of the book is apt, Evans work here seems to have been an honest stab at capturing the breadth of the nation, in some interesting sense. There are people, street scenes, architecture, still lifes, and strange things drawn, painted, or glued to walls. There are very few landscapes, which is telling in a book of this title. Evans seems to have felt that America is in her people, their belongings, their buildings, their streets.

Buy it, keep it near. It's superb.

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