Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Walker Evans

What else is there to say about Walker Evans other than he is probably the greatest American photographer of the Twentieth Century... Okay - there is plenty more to say.

It's hard to tire of Evan's work - whether it's his early work from Cuba, the extensive Depression era work with the FSA, his subway project or any of the other work he produced from Florida, Northeast architecture or his very late colour work.

Evans' work pretty much defined a whole American approach to photography - indeed American Photographs is probably one of the most important books of photography published in the last century in North America - defining both Modern photography in particular and photography books in general.

A recent word from John Szarkowski:
"Probably the most misunderstood important photographer in American photography is Walker Evans. You know, people think he was photographing the Depression, people think he was photographing poor people or tried to promote social change. Walker was less interested in social change.... But what he really was photographing was something else. Very seldom did he photograph anything that he didn’t think had some kind of quality. Even if it was the record of a failure, it was the record of a failure in which there was some kind of poignancy, some kind of memorable ambition. Some kind of artistic intention, even if naive or cut short. Noble failure was a constant interest of his. A piece of stamped tin ornament thrown away in the junk pile — it’s a record of an artistic ambition that was for some reason cut short, thwarted, died stillborn, of course naive, but nevertheless, on some level, moving."

and from a recent exhibition review:

"...He combined Hemingway’s economy with Cummings’s wit and Eliot’s urbanity. His laconic scrutiny defined an American visual poetry stripped of Victorian charm and propriety and easy bohemianism. It’s there in the rhyming circles of the windows of the houses echoing Lombard’s shiner on the poster, in the haphazard geometry of the telephone wires and in the tumble of abandoned Model T’s, like tombstones, collected at the base of a grassy hill. The last is akin to one of Brady’s Civil War photographs, silent and eternal. Evans’s mordant dispassion let him see destitution and the everyday in all its ready-made eloquence, short-circuiting our pity and condescension."

Interestingly the Library of Congress holds many of Evan's negatives and prints from the FSA work. A lot of this has been digitized and can be found at the American Memory site. While they have links to a few of his most popular photographs up front, if you hunt around (and you do have to hunt) there are a significant number of hi-res files of Evans' work. You can download these and they a certainly good enough to produce your own 11x14 or so print - such as the one below.

While I was hunting around the web for images I was also delighted to find a recorded interview with Evan's at the Getty here


Philip said...

What in your opinion makes him the greatest American photographer of the Twentieth Century? I'm not being facetious, I just genuinely find it difficult to see him in anyway other than he sees himself, as just photographing often unaware of what he is seeing in the historical sense.

tim atherton said...

Phillip - well - it's a pretty big question to answer (and regarding the interview, let's say Evan's wasn't above a little false modesty and myth making).

But, just a few points:

For one, his work still stands solidly and four square today on it's own today. For example, 9 times out of 10 when I look through the FSA work on the LoC site I can almost always pick out an Evans photograph compared to say Lange, or Delano or Lee etc - as good photographers as they were.

Also, his approach to photography and photographing brought together and synthesized a number of different elements that very much were the developing of Modernism in photography.

This in itself set the ground for a wide variety of photographers who followed him, who went on to do new and exciting things but who were clearly influenced and informed by him

(If you read photographers biographies, the number of photographers from the last 50 years who mention they picked up a copy of American Photographs or saw an Evans show at MoMA and were blown away is quite significant) - from Friedlander to Frank, to Eggleston and shore, to diCorcia, Callahan and on to Struth and Gursky and also the likes of Warhol and Lictenstein - all were (and many more) were influenced by him and his work in some way.

It's hard to think of any other photographer who has had this kind of deep influence on the course photography has taken in N America - and beyond - the last 60 or 70 years.

Evan's work is deceptively simple (as he seems to be enjoying portraying it in the interview), rather like his throwaway but essential comment about working in the "documentary style"

another szarkowski quote, which could equally apply to Evans:

“Photography is the easiest thing in the world, if one is willing to accept pictures that are flaccid, limp, bland, banal, indiscriminately informative and pointless, but if one insists on a photograph that is both complex and vigorous, it is almost impossible.”

Evans photographs come close to achieving the impossible - which not many others manage.

That's just a bit of an answer...

Philip said...

I suppose I'm playing the devils advocate here in an attempt really to understand him. Mainly I suppose to work out why I have so little enthusiasm (I have much enthusiasm for Friedlander). If I'm a writer and I borrow something off Hemingway's simplicity that doesn't make Hemingway any greater, I may just as easily borrow something from a failed writer.

Taking this (from your quote):

" the tumble of abandoned Model T’s, like tombstones, collected at the base of a grassy hill. The last is akin to one of Brady’s Civil War photographs, silent and eternal."

Now frankly, I just see a bunch of old cars, none of this eternal stuff.

If he takes a picture of a piece of junk as an expression of a noble failure, well ok, but the photograph itself, in fact, does not express anything of the magnitude of the failure expressed in its interpretation, there is no history of that object, nor detailed context.

So, in brief, I feel so much more is made of his images than really exists (note: I am not disparaging him as a photographer)

tim atherton said...

If I'm a writer and I borrow something off Hemingway's simplicity that doesn't make Hemingway any greater, I may just as easily borrow something from a failed writer.

but if, in effect, a whole generation or more draws from him, I think it does.

Rather than me trying to draw it out in a blog post (which is even less convenient than a discussion board...), a couple of books worth looking at - usually available through any library - would probably be Walker Evans and Company, the Introduction to the MoMA 1971 show catalogue (easily found in libraries or used) and the into by Lincoln Kirstein to American Photographs

In essence though, Evans defined one of the main directions of photography as an art for the next 60 years or so at least