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Walker Evans' iconic 'American Photographs' turns 75

By dpreview staff on Aug 11, 2013 at 12:00 GMT

Walker Evans' iconic images of American life in the early 20th century helped elevate photography to the status of fine art. His 1938 book 'Walker Evans: American Photographs' celebrates its 75th anniversary this year and the Museum of Modern Art is commemorating this milestone by bringing it back into print with an accompanying exhibition of his work. BBC News Magazine offers some insights from the show's curator, Sarah Hermanson Meister. 

 Photo by Walker Evans, 1935 or 1936.
Photo by Walker Evans, 1935 or 1936.
Photo by Walker Evans, 1936.
Photo by Walker Evans, 1936.

All images via Wikimedia Commons.

Walker Evans American Photographs is on view now at MoMA in New York through January 26, 2014 and the re-printed American Photographs is available from MoMA's online store. Has Walker Evans' body of work influenced your own photography? Let us know in the comments.

Comments

Total comments: 39
Jdspar
By Jdspar (8 months ago)

I believe Walker Evans influence trancends time. When I look at his work I see how the next generation of photographers "read" his imagery. His use of an 8x10 for his documentary portraiture meant he had to spend sometime with the subject, getting to know them. That is what I see in work by Avedons In the American West and recently Martin Schoeller.

0 upvotes
AndersonPhotog
By AndersonPhotog (8 months ago)

Was wondering what a modern version of his vision would look like. In my mind, the today version would seem too mundane, but in 75 years, they would probably prove to be powerful. Though I digress, because part of what makes those 75 year old prints so iconic, is the way they are produced in black and white. I cant imagine that photos 75years from now will look a lot different, in that accurate color and non degradation of digital vs film and prints will not "date" today's images in the same way film photography in the past has.

0 upvotes
justinwonnacott
By justinwonnacott (8 months ago)

I would think that if Walker Evans were working today documenting working class culture for a government propaganda project he would spend a lot of time looking at strip malls, housing developments and suburban environments - amongst other things.

The images would certainly have a time and date stamp on them from the content shown as much as the from the look and feel of the technology he used to photograph with. Evans worked hard to make images with descriptive power (like a writer) and understood that his images were historical documents.

Evans' visual style was his solution to the descriptive challenge he faced and stands apart from the more illustrative or photojournalistic ways of photographing that was typical then. His aesthetic and choice of subject matter was quite different from many of the other FSA photographers .

0 upvotes
fad
By fad (8 months ago)

I don't think he was documenting poverty, but rather the tragic nature of the American dream. It is impossible to know how a person of his depth and seriousness would shoot today unless one shared that attribute with him, and not even then, I guess.

Comment edited 43 seconds after posting
1 upvote
jkoch2
By jkoch2 (8 months ago)

Nearly anyone photographed in that era, rich or poor, would have looked sad about the mouth. Bad teeth. Don't dare smile.

But times change. Besides better oral hygiene, fluoridation, and dental care, people's attitude towards cameras evolve too. Today it would be impossible to marshall people to pose in front of cameras, knowing they'd be made to look tawdry for the sake of someone else's honors or schadenfreude.

1 upvote
JackM
By JackM (8 months ago)

nice use of shadenfreude.

1 upvote
mapgraphs
By mapgraphs (8 months ago)

“Has Walker Evans' body of work influenced your own photography?”

Yes. The care in framing, what to include, accentuate, portray. Photographers and illustrators of the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s presented a view of life, a viewpoint, and stories that still speak today.

Thanks for posting the links.

1 upvote
bigdaddave
By bigdaddave (8 months ago)

The picture of the woman is a strong picture, the others are really just 'documentary' shots of the era in which they lived and nothing special at all

1 upvote
justinwonnacott
By justinwonnacott (8 months ago)

I would prefer to be a man of my own time ... at least when it comes to explaining the world around me with a camera. " just documentary" is a pretty cheap dismissal very easy to say and much harder to do in a meaningful way .... as Walker Evans did.

4 upvotes
Rbrt
By Rbrt (8 months ago)

"Just documentary" when nobody else was doing "just documentary". You could say the same thing about Ansel Adams, except his "documentary" subject was Yosemite.

0 upvotes
jkoch2
By jkoch2 (8 months ago)

Adams also photographed rural workers. People are a more delicate subject than rocks.

0 upvotes
fad
By fad (8 months ago)

It helps to buy the book. Evans' is a serious man, with a tragic vision of great depth.

0 upvotes
Gavril Margittai
By Gavril Margittai (8 months ago)

I am also sometimes wondering what makes these old masters, really masters. I think we don't realize today that making a picture like the ones shown was not as simple as pulling out your phone camera and pushing a button. Also picking the subjects, today it seems obvious that a portrait like this is a reflection of an era but while you living in that era I bet it was not that obvious, and few people took the trouble and felt the "call" of capturing it for eternity. And they kept doing it on their own without being appreciated for years and years leaving behind thousands of valuable pictures that for us today is like a window into the past. A true legacy.
I think this is the reason.

Comment edited 6 minutes after posting
5 upvotes
Paul Storm
By Paul Storm (8 months ago)

a lot of evan's works are fairly flat, most subjects are in a single plane. there seems to be an obsession with structure & form. interesting but limiting. i just can't see why, nor buy into the idea of him being some sort of understated / objective genius.

Comment edited 41 seconds after posting
1 upvote
CaseyComo
By CaseyComo (8 months ago)

Everyone will remember your photos in 75 years. I'm sure they will.

12 upvotes
Dave Luttmann
By Dave Luttmann (8 months ago)

Flat....LOL

4 upvotes
b craw
By b craw (8 months ago)

Perhaps many are flat or the spaces feel compressed via photographic process(es), but this is only problem if you are making the argument that the effect is contrary to message; which I will absolutely dispute. Once again, I find it problematic that so many in this forum's comment threads perpetuate art historically-unsupported adherence to the conventions - and in the extreme dogma - of image making. And promoting at least a level of critical evaluation of this pervasive condition is a constant struggle when I teach.

1 upvote
Nathebeach
By Nathebeach (8 months ago)

So are you saying he is just famous for being famous?

0 upvotes
jkoch2
By jkoch2 (8 months ago)

Yes, fame helps perpetuate fame. Once in the pantheon, public recognition spreads, and on it goes. Collectors and auctioneers know well.

0 upvotes
agentul
By agentul (8 months ago)

"a lot of evan's works are fairly flat, most subjects are in a single plane. "

so... not enough background blur, then? he should have used a FF camera.

0 upvotes
Nathebeach
By Nathebeach (8 months ago)

I guess nobody picked up on my sarcasm. I was implying that they are good strong photos regardless of the fame of the photographer's status.

0 upvotes
Eric Hensel
By Eric Hensel (8 months ago)

When you really have a point to make, avoid sarcasm --IMNSHO of course ;)

0 upvotes
Nathebeach
By Nathebeach (8 months ago)

Maybe sarcasm was not the proper word. More of a though provoking comment.

0 upvotes
wolfbane
By wolfbane (8 months ago)

FWIW 1938 was also the 75th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg, attended by about 70 survivors. Did Americans commemmorate the equally important and simultaneous fall of Vicksburg with anything like the fervour associated with Gettysburg? Maybe Abe should have followed up with a Vicsburg Address.

You're right about the pinched look of the woman. Time to go back and read Steinbeck, Alistair.

0 upvotes
jkoch2
By jkoch2 (8 months ago)

Vicksburg was too far away, and Abe had mixed feelings about leading a toast to the field CO's 40-proof fortitude, or spirit of of devotion unto the last shot glass. Perhaps there was somthing medicinal about it, but the Temperance voters would cringe.

0 upvotes
km25
By km25 (8 months ago)

When you look at the photo of the women, you can see how their standard of life was so hard on them. I will bet that women is no more then thirty and if you were to see a pictue of here ten years before she would look like a young flower.
After you see photographs as these you should realize it is not container, it is the content.

4 upvotes
photobeans
By photobeans (8 months ago)

Well, women weren't obsessed with make-up and facial creams back then. My mom who came from a dirt poor Asia looked like 40 something when she was 30 years old when I look at some of our pictures.

0 upvotes
bigdaddave
By bigdaddave (8 months ago)

"Well, women weren't obsessed with make-up and facial creams back then"

Of course they were, the ones that had the money. This is the face of a poor working mother. A REAL face.

1 upvote
jkoch2
By jkoch2 (8 months ago)

Back then (or to this day in some places): no Pill or fluoride toothpaste.

0 upvotes
Joel Benford
By Joel Benford (8 months ago)

This work is splendid, but I'm a bit miffed that Evans' decades of subsequent splendid work are somewhat ignored for it.

Still, good stuff.

2 upvotes
jkoch2
By jkoch2 (8 months ago)

Photography and the stock market follow inverse paths, apparently.

1 upvote
Al Evans
By Al Evans (8 months ago)

Walker Evans has been one of my top three or four photographic influences. Regardless of what I'm shooting, the impromptu slice-of-life look tends to be prominent in my images.

0 upvotes
reginalddwight
By reginalddwight (8 months ago)

Evans' work for the Resettlement Administration in the 1930s represent the pinnacle of his career as a documentary photographer.

There are several historical photographs that best represent the Great Depression.

In addition to arguably the most iconic of the era, "Migrant Mother" by Dorothea Lange, the portrait of Allie Mae Burroughs by Evans superbly captures the raw anguish and uncertainty of the times.

.

4 upvotes
b craw
By b craw (8 months ago)

Dorothea Lange's "Migrant Woman" was the focus of some controversy - or more specifically Lange's testimony about the context being disputed by the subject and her family. Actually, both her's and Evan's work have been criticized by some as staged scenes. Nonetheless both bodies of work from that period create a compelling narrative of the dire circumstances of the time. It is arguably Lange who is the most impactful photographer of migrant circumstance. In 1940, she went on to document the friction between the migrant and (relative) native populations in the area of California in which I now live. One of those images, as odd coincidence, was taken from the current vantage point of my kitchen, the house being actually constructed later in 1948. I could hardly believe this when I discovered it, having lectured for years on Lange and other Depression Era photographers, but having been unaware of these specific images.

https://www.google.ca/search?q=dorothea+lange+wilson+school+airport+tract+modesto&client=safari&hl=en&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ei=xQgIUpetEOrg2gXE24GgDg&ved=0CAcQ_AUoAQ&biw=320&bih=356#biv=i%7C3%3Bd%7Cmo2TeytM-sbZfM%3A

0 upvotes
fad
By fad (8 months ago)

These things happen. Berenice Abbott stood across the street from my townhouse in Manhattan, and carefully framed a shot that excluded it. When I saw the image, I realized that I had looked on that scene every day for years and not realized its potential, I eventually took a better shot than she did, with modern equipment and processing:

http://collections-static-2.mcny.org/Doc/MNY/Media/TR3/2/3/8/4/MNY76129.jpg

Evans was teaching at the college I went to, but I was too ignorant to care about who he was, a mere photographer. His first published images were in an early edition of Hart Crane's poem, The Bridge. Crane started writing the poem, and being friends with Evans, while living on my block, which was a notable slum south of Greenwich Village.

Evans was important also for his support of other photographers, getting people like Robert Frank a Guggenheim so he could produce his lamentable "The Americans."

Comment edited 2 times, last edit 3 minutes after posting
1 upvote
AndersonPhotog
By AndersonPhotog (8 months ago)

fad, I honestly do not see the power of that Abbott shot.

0 upvotes
fad
By fad (8 months ago)

Forms and shadows, especially shadows.

0 upvotes
Osscat
By Osscat (8 months ago)

About the FSA - Farm Security Administration set up by Roy Stryker, part of the American Government's New Deal to tackle rural poverty among sharecroppers, tenant farmers and very poor landowners. Evans was one of those employed to make a pictorial record.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Farm_Security_Administration

Also from The New York Times: http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/06/06/a-historic-photo-archive-re-emerges-at-the-new-york-public-library/?_r=0

Osscat

Comment edited 2 times, last edit 12 minutes after posting
0 upvotes
Geodesiq
By Geodesiq (8 months ago)

And the irony is today's documentary photography will be dust in the wind in 75 years while FSA negatives will likely still be around. We have sacrificed permanence for digital convenience.

0 upvotes
Total comments: 39