The abstract visual games that had entranced and delighted most adventurous photographers during the decade of the twenties had lost much of their charm by the early thirties. Our fondness for historical symmetry makes it tempting to ascribe the change to the problems of the period and to a heightened awareness among artists of social and political priorities. Unfortunately this explanation, neat as it is, does not quite fit the facts, which seem to demonstrate no dependable correlation between realism and social commitment, or between abstraction and social indifference. Moholy-Nagy, deeply committed to the social utility of art, was a formalist; Brassai, the ultimate realist, seems totally immersed in the specifics of life, and scarcely aware of society. Edward Weston was not only apolitical but basically asocial; Paul Strand on the contrary has always been profoundly concerned with the social fabric. Yet beginning in the latter twenties the work of both men turned toward a more specific realism.
It seems likely that the change that occurred in photography around 1930 was fundamentally a matter of formal evolution --- the result of what had gone before in photography. Positions that had been staked out during the preceding twenty years now seemed to offer diminished promise, especially to young photographers about to make their entrance. There were, however, other possibilities, positions that had only been hinted at by earlier work.
It was at this moment that sophisticated photographers discovered the poetic uses of bare-faced facts, facts presented with such fastidious reserve that the quality of the picture seemed identical to that of the subject. The new style came to be called documentary. This approach to photography was most clearly defined in the work of Walker Evans. Evans's work seemed at first almost the antithesis of art: It was puritanically economical, precisely measured, frontal, unemotional, dryly textured, insistently factual, qualities that seemed more appropriate to a bookkeeper's ledger than to art. But in time it became clear that Evans's pictures, however laconic in manner, were immensely rich in expressive content. His work constitutes a personal survey of the interior resources of the American tradition, a survey based on a sensibility that found poetry and complexity where most earlier travelers had found only drab statistics or fairy tales.
The photograph above is made through the glass of a provincial photographer's display window. It is an abridged catalogue of American physiognomy, costume, and style, a kind of composite self-portrait bearing on the question of who Americans thought they were in 1936 --- and a humorous tribute to the unintentional honesty of the photographer and his sitters. It is also a remarkable and original picture; unlike the photographer's window, it demands interpretation.
from "Looking at Photographs" by John Szarkowski
The original edition of American Photographs was a carefully prepared letterpress production, published by The Museum of Modern Art in 1938 to accompany an exhibition of photographs by Evans that captured scenes of America in the early 1930s.
This unsparing record of place, of the people who shaped the land and the rhythm of their lives, is intensely moving and unrelentingly honest, and today - recognized by the New York Public Library as one of the most influential books of the twentieth century - it stands as a poetic tract of its time.
This important book revises our appreciation of Evans by presenting previously unknown material in an accessible context. Essays by Maria Morris Hambourg, Jeff L. Rosenheim, Doug Eklund, and Mia Fineman offer novel insights into the sources and legacy of Evans's work. The result is a superb exploration of what was achieved by one of our finest, mostly deeply American artists.
In this first full biography, a leading authority on Evans penetrates the anonymity of his legendary photographs to reveal A VERY RICH AND INCLUSIVE LIFE OF FOOLISHNESS, CRUELTY, AND SPLENDOR, SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE.
In 1971, when the author enrolled in the Yale School of Art as an aspiring photographer, his principal aim was to learn all he could from one of the leading and most admired American photographers of this century, Walker Evans. Once Evans accepted Jerry Thompson as a student, they developed an extremely close working relationship as well as a personal friendship.
- Stare. It is the way to educate your eye, and more. Stare. Pry, listen eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long.
- Walker Evans at the Detroit Institute of Arts, Michigan
- J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
- Walker Evans at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City
- Museum of Modern Art, New York City
- San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
- U.S. Library of Congress, Washington D.C.
- Addison Gallery of American Art, Andover, Massachusetts
- Allen Art Museum at Oberlin College, Ohio