Walker Evans: Cuba

Walker Evans: Cuba

J. Paul Getty Museum. Essay by Andrei Codrescu and introduction by Judith Keller. ISBN-10: 1606060643, ISBN-13: 978-1606060643 $24.95  

Published to coincide with the J. Paul Getty Museum exhibition, 'A Revolutionary Project: Cuba from Walker Evans to Now,' Walker Evans Cuba is a striking window into the eye of a future master. The work in Cuba is uneven. Some shots reveal the preoccupations and talent that would later make Evans a world-class artist.  Others aren’t much better than vacation snapshots. But for people who want to see how a photographic genius develops as well as those simply interested in Cuba's pre-revolutionary people and architecture, this is a valuable work. 

Walker Evans is a major figure of 20th Century photography, cited by many other giants as an influence. Henri Cartier-Bresson, for example, told Charlie Rose that Evans was one of his photographic 'fathers.' More than any other body of his work, the images Evans created during the Great Depression for the Farm Securities Administration cemented his reputation as a keen observer of people and their spaces.

This series, taken a few years before the FSA work, is not as widely known. In 1933, Evans went to Cuba on assignment for the publisher of progressive crusader Carleton Beals’s then-forthcoming book, The Crime of Cuba. He was to document the conditions under the dictator Gerardo Machado. Beals and his publisher likely wanted imagery wrought with emotion and designed to evoke outrage at the conditions of the poor. Evans, already somewhat of a non-conformist, went for something more subtle: storytelling that was more journalistic and less overtly opinionated than that of his colleagues.

While in Cuba, Evans befriended Ernest Hemingway, and perhaps Hemingway’s ability to artfully depict a moment or interaction with simple and unadorned prose inspired the young photographer. The curator and critic John Szarkowski, in his classic Looking at Photographs, accurately distills Evans’s style thus: '...puritanically economical, precisely measured, frontal, unemotional, dryly textured, insistently factual…but…Evans' pictures, however laconic in manner, were rich in expressive content.'

© Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

In many shots, the emerging young artist experiments with elements that would become hallmarks of his style. Evans shoots living environments that illustrate both the broad cultural context as well as telling idiosyncratic details of their inhabitants. He also consistently photographs people framed by two-dimensional graphic elements like signs, posters, or print ads. Throughout Cuba, there is a rigor to the arrangement of objects within the frame. For example, lines and planes are expertly used in one shot in a Havana courtyard. A statue’s raised fist creates a line extending into the arm of a bending man, while all around laundry sheets and ropes create parallel or perpendicular lines. Photographers who like to employ 'frames within frames' will find inspiration in Evans’s shot of the façade of a Havana movie theater, in which no fewer than seven mini frames balance out the whole.

© Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

None of the photos can compare to his later masterpieces, but many of them show his original eye and vision. Evans is often credited with the ability to simply record what appeared in his viewfinder in an objective and unembellished way. These early pictures indicate that Evan’s “simplicity” is smokescreen for a complex vision. It’s no easy feat to compose a scene in a graphically pleasing way while capturing a poignant moment or a richly informative living space. The work of a rare talent is evident in his ability to do so in a manner that, upon first glance, seems hardly more than straightforward documentation, but that continues to feel fresh and new upon repeated viewing. For Walker Evans fans, or for anyone who wants to see a major photographer capturing Cuba at very specific place and time, Walker Evans Cuba is a fascinating and engaging book.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions held by dpreview.com or any affiliated companies.

Comments

Total comments: 18
Cy Cheze
By Cy Cheze (Nov 14, 2011)

What sort of camera, lenses, or film did Walker Evans use? Why no reprint of the Carleton Beals book in which the photos originally appeared?

0 upvotes
jmmgarza
By jmmgarza (Nov 14, 2011)

Photographs of a colonized Cuba, when Mafia exploitation exposed America's decadence. Can't wait to inspect the book.

0 upvotes
DonInPgh
By DonInPgh (Nov 14, 2011)

A book review! Whoopie...

1 upvote
Simon Joinson
By Simon Joinson (Nov 14, 2011)

another 'why isn't this a camera review' comment from DonInPgh! whoopee doo.

3 upvotes
WT21
By WT21 (Nov 13, 2011)

I don't care at all for Andrei Condrescu.

Love Walker Evans, though. I have two books on him so far. Maybe add this one (and rip out Mr. Condrescu's essay).

0 upvotes
hiplnsdrftr
By hiplnsdrftr (Nov 14, 2011)

I'm with Condrescu, looking forward to the evaporation of 4 million fools.

0 upvotes
JC Gregory
By JC Gregory (Nov 12, 2011)

Yes, of course. It was wrong of me to stray in my comment--I should have stuck with the topic of Mr Evans. I know for sure that he was a genius, and I do plan to buy the book. By the way, it was first printed by the Getty in 2001.

Comment edited 33 seconds after posting
0 upvotes
Footay
By Footay (Nov 12, 2011)

Adam Koplan is a very perceptive person indeed. As proof, he chose to review a book that included an essay by Andrei Condrescu, who happens to be a genius and an American treasure.

3 upvotes
raducdz
By raducdz (Nov 13, 2011)

Why is he an american treasure, since he's romanian?:-?

0 upvotes
lucianri
By lucianri (Nov 14, 2011)

If Andrei Condrescu is an american, maybe Romania is also a part from USA. Typical American attitude.

0 upvotes
dudu_307
By dudu_307 (Nov 14, 2011)

From wikipedia: "In 1981, Codrescu became a naturalized citizen of the United States".

He's a Romanian-born American poet.

0 upvotes
JC Gregory
By JC Gregory (Nov 12, 2011)

I've always loved Walker Evans's photographs, and enjoyed seeing the ones above, included with the piece by Mr Adamkoplan. I would buy the book and be completely happy if Mr Condrescu's thoughts were not included, since I don't consider him an authority on Evans, or photography. I'd much rather read more by the perceptive author of this article, thank you.

0 upvotes
dleibow
By dleibow (Nov 12, 2011)

I saw the exhibit and then bought the book. The book is great. The exhibit was really super: Walker Evans, then photos made during the revolution, then photos from 2 contemporary photographers. If you cannot see the exhibit definitely look at this book

2 upvotes
Barend
By Barend (Nov 12, 2011)

Havana captured by me http://www.pictureplaza.nl/barend/cuba/

0 upvotes
Ashley Pomeroy
By Ashley Pomeroy (Nov 12, 2011)

"Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy."

4 upvotes
hiplnsdrftr
By hiplnsdrftr (Nov 14, 2011)

Not a Kennedy and not a photographer...

0 upvotes
Marla
By Marla (Nov 12, 2011)

I love Walker Evans Photography - I have a copy of one of his books. Thank you for the article. Walker Evans is also a reminder to me of the power of the "subject" vs perfection within the frame.

3 upvotes
Pap38
By Pap38 (Nov 13, 2011)

I will agree with Marla definition describing his work. So true but so frequently lost in the images we see today.
BJ

0 upvotes
Total comments: 18