Walker Evans: American Photographs

I first came to Walker Evans through his collaboration with writer James Agee in the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941). Then about a month ago I bought a copy of the 75th anniversary edition of American Photographs (US edition at the MoMA store) first published in 1938 by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I’ve been looking at it every day since. Many of the images in the book are familiar. In the case of Evans’s well-known portrait of Allie Mae Burroughs, two different images (see above) were chosen for the two projects. Perhaps Evans’s views about what he and Agee saw in Alabama in 1936 had hardened by the time Let Us Now Praise Famous Men was in preparation, but the version which appears in that book, one of four frames exposed at the time, is tougher and less trusting.

What I like about these photographs is the sense they have of trying to show us everything and letting you make up your own mind. “Here it all is, untouched and unchanged,” says Evans, and presents us with buildings photographed face-on, filling the frame, wrecked cars strewn across a landscape, or a bed in a room snapped at a thoughtless angle. Evans’s effort to remain (or at least appear to remain) focussed on documentary realism makes his work dramatic, even stark, but that doesn’t mean it is unemotional. He captures the eyes of a farmer trying and failing to clothe and feed his family, a couple in a parked car surrounded by the blur of passing traffic, or a street lined with cars and slick with rain. In his accompanying essay Lincoln Kirstein compares Evans with T.S. Eliot and like Eliot, Evans keeps himself–his admiration, his amusement, and his pity–out of his work so that we can find the meaning there.

Evans was 35 years old when the American Photographs exhibition and book first appeared. By then he had a decade of photographic work behind him, much of it undertaken on behalf of the Resettlement Administration, a government agency set up during the Depression to document struggling rural communities. Evans’s photographs of store fronts and roadside buildings, as well as his images of ordinary Americans going about their business, are in contrast to the grand landscapes of his contemporary Ansell Adams. Where Adams celebrated the natural beauty of North America and did so in a quasi-Romantic style, Evans concentrated on its people and the farms, small towns and cities where they lived.

The images in American Photographs often have a narrative quality to them, perhaps reflecting Evans’s early ambition to be a writer. They are arranged in the order in which they are intended to be viewed–the book began life as an exhibition catalogue–and there are many juxtapositions that seem important. For example in Part One, a 1932 portrait of an exhausted coal dock worker (plate 33) precedes a minstrel showbill from 1935 (plate 34). These are different kinds of blackness, and black experience, played off against each other.

On a more structural level the portraits and faces of Part One give way to the architectural photographs in Part Two. These are two separate and distinct incarnations of America: the human and the made. The human forms in Part One–wry, defiant, proud and, despite their sometimes miserable circumstances, vividly alive–are overtaken in Part Two by vacant buildings, empty streets. Part One ends, perhaps significantly, with an image of a classically-inspired Louisiana plantation house partially obscured by the massive trunk of a fallen tree; Part Two begins with a battered representation of a scrolled capital from an Ionic column made in stamped tin.

In American Photographs we find a detailed visualisation of an America that is somehow cold and unforgiving, and yet where real people live. In many of Evans’s photographs everything is in focus, to be scrutinised and pored over. Meaning is something you have to search for, but you might find it anywhere: in the detail of a poster, or the pose of a figure at the edge of the frame. Complex composition, beyond simple foreground and background, creates its own narrative.

In this, it occurs to me, Evans anticipates the style of Greg Toland, whose cinematography in films like The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and Citizen Kane (1941) brought a new way of looking to moving pictures. In those movies Toland often uses ‘deep focus’ to show concurrent narratives within individual scenes. Similarly Evans keeps foreground and background in focus, using layering, shadow and perspective as narrative tools in his still images. Using relatively slow film and, most of the time, large negatives, such photography required long exposures even in bright light. To look at one of these photographs is to observe a scene frozen not for a fraction of a second, but over many seconds; although still, many of them describe a significant passage of time.

That this was a conscious decision on Evans’s part is evident in the photographs from the book that were taken in the early part of his career, before around 1932. Although there is no moment when his style changed decisively, images from the 1920s, such as Part One plate 11 “Coney Island Boardwalk” (1929) suggest a lighter, more playful approach. In this image we see, from behind, a woman in a summer outfit printed with a balloon motif, leaning over the boardwalk rail. The blurred bathers in the background, and the waist-level view of the woman’s hips, leave no doubt about where we are supposed to look. Later photographs pretend to leave those decisions up to us, but as the two Allie Mae Burroughs portraits show, it’s not quite as simple as that.

American Photographs has been in and out of print several times since 1938, but it is one of the most important photographic books of the twentieth century. This beautifully-printed 75th anniversary edition is well worth looking at. (US edition and UK edition).