Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Walker Evans and Peter Sekaer and America

By now, discussions of Walker Evans’ high watermark of a book American Photographs are dime a dozen. For those who don’t know, I will refer you to John Hill’s wonderful new book Walker Evans: Lyric Documentary and leave it at that.

What I did not know about until recently was that during Walker’s travels through the South in 1936 he was accompanied by a man named Peter Sekaer. Sekaer, had met Evans a few years earlier through the painter/photographer Ben Shahn.

In 1935, Sekaer began assisting Walker by printing and mounting the photographs of African sculpture that Evans had been commissioned to make for the Museum of Modern Art. It was during this time Evans was hired on to photograph around the country for the Resettlement Administration. Many of the images he would make on those trips wound up in American Photographs.

After the African MOMA project was finished, Sekaer, wanting experience as a photographer to build up his resume, accompanied Walker on RA assignments. For approximately two months, the two visited over 29 cities and logged over 4,000 miles of travel.

Pete Sekaer American Pictures, a small catalog published in 1999 by the Howard Greenberg Gallery and the Addison Gallery of Art, describes this fascinating time in American photography.

Since Evans and Sekaer were traveling together, they wound up photographing some of the same buildings and landscapes. In fact, Sekaer admits that at times the two would be a bit competitive for the best vantage point (photography after all is a matter of finding where you need to stand) but being that Sekaer was not actually employed on the trips, he would give way for Walker when challenged. If one looks closely, in some of Sekaer’s photographs, they will discover a man with an 8 X 10 camera that looks suspiciously like Walker Evans.

Among Sekaer’s photographs one discovers alternate vantage points from the more known Evans photographs. Interesting case in point, the situation described in the well known photograph by Evans below shows up in a version by Sekaer who was apparently down the street to the right. The men in the photograph are actually looking at Sekaer and his camera. I essence, Sekaer was at times, the distracting foil for Evans.

Sekaer apparently archived his photos in ledger type books where he would glue individual images cut from contact sheets and annotate them with the vital information. Scanning these pages one occasionally finds an image with the notation of “WE,” seemingly to indicate that the image is actually Walker’s. It wouldn’t be far fetched to imagine that in some situations, Walker might have said, “Quick, Pete…let me borrow your Rolli for this.”

What Sekaer’s work provides besides some wonderful photography is a new context for those situations described in a few of the works in American Photographs. I would hope that a larger book and study of Peter Sekaer’s work will materialize at some point. They provide an insight to a time in American photography too fascinating to be ignored.

Book Available Here