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ART REVIEW : A Photo Album of a Pilgrim’s Progress

Times Staff Writer

When turn-of-the-century critics pounced on him for his narrow approach to photography, Frederick Henry Evans was as waspish and impatient as they come. But for his true loves--the great cathedrals of England and France--he had all the time in the world.

Evans would camp out in these drafty monuments for days to find the optimum vantage point for his camera and wait for just the right quality of light to filter through the windows. The results were more than just documentary photographs; they were artifacts embodying deeply emotional responses to the soaring beauty of medieval architecture.

Evans’ superb platinum prints--a bountiful selection of which are on view at the County Museum of Art through Nov. 27--are throwbacks to an era of photography already on the wane in his own day. For him, subject matter was paramount. His art was a means of preserving on paper the intense feelings he had about beautiful buildings; it had nothing to do with the stylistic experimentation of an Edward Steichen or an Alfred Stieglitz.

Above all, Evans believed in the integrity of the unmanipulated, unretouched print. “Our cathedrals are rich enough in broad and subtle effect of light and shade, atmosphere, grandeur of line and mass, to be content with pure photography at its best,” he wrote in the Photographic Journal in 1900.

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Although he sometimes photographed church facades--most memorably in a vision of Lincoln Cathedral rising in pale, lacy splendor past smoking Victorian chimneys--his favorite milieu was the cavernous, inviting “and most wonderfully lit” space across the threshold.

At Wells Cathedral, he looked up at a flight of steps worn down over the centuries into rippling tiers of stone and saw a great wave ascending, descending and rising again as if paralleling the pilgrim’s journey to salvation.

At Bourges Cathedral, he looked down one of the double aisles to capture the exquisitely calibrated rhythms of the vaulting: the lower-slung, widely spaced ribs nearer the outside of the building and the taller, more concentrated massing next to the nave.

Inside Lincoln Cathedral, he focused on the brilliant, sharply linear effect of the bundled columns and arches. Even the inevitable modern-day chairs (which Evans insisted be removed at another cathedral) fail to detract from the intensity of this splendid vision.

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York Minster inspired Evans to seize his moment when sunlight suddenly illuminated a massive door adjacent to a recumbent memorial sculpture. Titling the print, “In Sure and Certain Hope,” he proved he was not immune to Victorian sentimentalism.

Formerly a London bookseller, Evans closed up his shop in 1898, when he was 45, to devote himself to photography and his other longstanding obsession: a player piano. Like the camera, it was a machine that allowed amateurs to have direct, personal contact with the expressive power of art.

On assignment for England’s Country Life magazine, beginning in 1905, Evans began attending to the smaller-scale architectural pleasures of impish carvings and exquisite traceries. His work also includes sun-dappled views of wooded landscapes, in which trees often suggest the delicate strength of Gothic architecture. Late in life, when he was too old and feeble to drag around his tripod, he scrupulously recorded his own sculpture collection.

By the time he died, in 1943, Evans was just about forgotten by the photography world, which had long since ventured into dazzling new realms of style and technology. But his quiet prints--assembled for the exhibit by the Alfred Stieglitz Center of the Philadelphia Museum of Art--remain hallmarks in architectural photography and pioneering elements in the struggle for “pure” photography to be considered a form of art.


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