Saturday, May 19, 2007

Five books that examine Walker Evans at work

Any artist that creates a body of work that shakes the foundations or basic understanding of their medium generally creates an interest in study of not only the work, but of the artist themselves. This is definitely the case with Walker Evans as his name is usually cited as one of the major stepping stones through the historical stream of this medium.

In the past decade there have been about a dozen titles dedicated to honoring his work. Several have approached his work not only head on through the photographs, but from studying what was happening behind the camera as well. These more scholarly titles are what I am going to take a look at in this post.

The oldest of these titles is Walker Evans At Work originally published in an American edition by Harper & Row in 1982. The book was compiled and edited by John T. Hill who was the executor of Evan’s estate. This book has remained in print through many editions since its first appearance.

Starting off with an informative essay by Jerry Thompson who was a student, assistant and friend of Walker’s, the book takes us through his life and examines his working methods as the title suggests. What is very interesting about the book is that through the 745 photographs, it often provides many alternate versions of known images. In one section, we see snippets of contact sheets that show two or three frames from his 35mm work. This allows us to see his initial responses to a subject and then how he adjusted his frame and “worked” the situation.

Another well known fact of Evans’s willingness to crop his images, sometimes by actually cutting up negatives, is shown.

“Stieglitz wouldn’t cut off a quarter-inch off a frame. I would cut any inches off my frames in order to get a better picture.” - Leslie Katz/ Walker Evans interview.

Throughout the book there are small quotes like the one above from Evans that give you a sense of his voice and thoughts about what he was accomplishing.

The book, although informative, is produced in a no frills way. The reproductions are functional and nothing more than what may be necessary for a scholar’s needs. I do wish the production was better as many of the images have not been seen in this form. All in all, this is still the required text for those interested in the process as well as the results.

Another title is Unclassified: A Walker Evans Anthology. This book, published by Scalo books and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, accompanied their major retrospective of Walker Evans that took place in 2000. The Met also published a large catalog from that show simultaneously simply called Walker Evans.

Evans left a huge archive of ephemera to his estate which was acquired in 1994 by the Metroplolitan Museum and this book is a rich depository of the material. Through correspondence, scrapbooks, personal collections such as postcards, artist statements, family photos and previously unpublished photographs, this book picks up and adds to the historic record that Walker Evans At Work examined. This book is much more about the ephemera and what I love about the book is that it is illustrated with reproductions that mimic the actual objects. Letters are reproduced with the patina of the onion skin paper they were originally typewritten upon. Full pages from scrapbooks are reproduced as if taken straight from the album.

This book also notes the legacy of Evans in relation to other photographers. Robert Frank’s Guggenhiem application for The Americans is reproduced (Evans had written a recommendation for Frank) and Walker’s introduction to a Harper’s Bazaar issue containing Lee Friedlander’s “Little Screen” television photographs is included as it appeared in that magazine in 1963.

Lastly, what sets this book apart from Walker Evans At Work is that it includes some of Walker’s written stories and poems. Evans originally wanted to be a writer and reading his words I found his writing style to be very contemporary in its structure. It has a stream of consciousness style that is comic yet carries the weight of the seriousness of life.

An excerpt from Brooms:

When I took this place I simply couldn’t buy a broom. Couldn’t buy anything. Sold, in fact, books, cameras; pawned watch. There was no broom until I found one in the alley back of the abandoned factory. It had a triangular shape. (I didn’t know anything about brooms.) I carried it home and swept bitterly.

The book is nicely produced and can be digested easily because of the attractiveness of the design which wills you into turning the pages.

In that same year, 2000, Arena Editions published Walker Evans: The Lost Work. This book, which seemed to be riding on the coattails of the major exhibitions at the Met and the Museum of Modern Art, is essentially about the poor business agreements Evans made towards the end of his life.

The introductory essay by Clark Worswick is mainly about the dealings of George Rinhart, Sam Wagstaff, Tom Bergen and Harry Lunn in the eventual acquisition of most of Evans’ lifework. The story has been told in a few different volumes now by different authors. James Mellow and Belinda Rathbone have both discussed in detail the transactions in their biographies of Evans. Without giving much away, I’d just say that the two page agreement letter that is reproduced reads as a greedy molestation of a desperate and aging artist.

The photographs included are mostly unknown and come across in a random way on the page. James Crump is credited with the editing and sequencing, but the book seems to be the photographic equivalent of scraping every last possible remnant of mayonnaise out of the jar. There are wonderful images featured here alongside others that Walker perhaps might have preferred remain “lost.”

As with other Arena Editions, this book feels really nice. The quality of the paper and construction is substantial and solid. The reproductions are have a nice, rich patina but suffer in the way that many Arena titles do which is that the lower end tonalities tend to get really blocked and the highlights fall off the scale. This title is perhaps more for the collector in you that compulsively buys anything related to Walker Evans. It is a handsome title but perhaps is a bit unnecessary.

Also from 2000, Walker Evans and Company is Peter Galassi’s treatment of Evans as influence. The book examines Walker’s work in comparison to other photographers and other mediums through 399 illustrations.

There are the usual suspects represented that might spring to mind but where this book excels is by making more obscure reference to the usage of, say, typography throughout several mediums. Ed Ruscha is then as much a subject for comparison as Robert Frank. This examination through different mediums winds up bridging modernism with the post modern and examining Evans’ vernacular descriptive style in relation to contemporary practice.

This is a book that through its design allows moments of revelation that one may not make cerebrally. The book accomplishes this by not making direct comparisons to Evans but by starting each section with several pages of Evans photographs that then drift into other artists work. In this “shifting,” we see “trends” as the example was set.

Peter Galassi’s essay is good but I find his writing style academic and too dry for my tastes. The book is very nicely produced both in design and printing. I have noticed that it has been made available rather inexpensively as of late. It is well worth taking a look at.

The last of thses scholarly titles is the most beautifully produced of all, Walker Evans: Lyric Documentary by John T. Hill published by Steidl in 2006.

This title examines the photographer’s most productive period, the years on the Resettlement Administration and Farm Security Administration commissions and a lecture that Evans gave at Yale in March of 1964.

In the lecture called “Lyric Documentary,” Evans avoided most direct reference to photography and instead concentrated his talk to imagery he had discovered while working in the map room of the New York Public Library.

In his essay, Hill takes us through many examples of what Evans had shown and spoke of during his now legendary lecture that hit upon examples ranging from Leonardo Da Vinci to common picture postcards.

Hill writes of Evans’ interest in: “…basically, any artifact that might help a diligent archaeologist decipher a culture. Picture postcards were for Evans the ultimate thumbprint of a period.”

This is a fascinating read that is a nice companion to the Galassi title in relation to influence. The book achieves an openness and full tonal scale in its reproductions that surpasses most of the other titles on Evans that I have seen. This is most likely due to the partnership of Gerhard Steidl and John Hill as both are at the top of their game in ink-on-paper printing. John’s long association with Evans and his work has led to this superb new translation of these images.

Lastly, it has come to my attention that there will be a new edition of American Photographs published this year by the Museum of Modern Art. This, of course, is the book that created all of the interest in Evans’ career. Even though there are all of these “scholarly” titles available for extensive study, American Photographs should be the obvious place for anyone to begin.

Book Available Here (Walker Evans At Work)

Book Available Here (Unclassified)

Book Available Here (Lost Work)

Book Available Here (Evans and Company)

Book Available Here (Lyric Documentary)