An admired book of photographs by Walker Evans, one of America’s most admired photographers, received its fourth edition recently in conjunction with an Evans exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. “American Photographs” was first published in 1938 when perhaps its greatest impact came less as art than as journalism: It was a stark, deeply moving but utterly unsentimental presentation of rural poverty during the Great Depression. While the documentary importance of “American Photographs” remains, the editions of 1962 (a MOMA edition, like that of 1938) and 1975 (East River Press) bespoke that importance less than they did the steadily growing stature of Evans as a photographic artist.
Lincoln Kirstein characterized Evans’ art as follows:
“The most characteristic single feature of Evans’ work is its purity, or even its puritanism. It is ‘straight’ photography not only in technique but in the rigorous directness of its way of looking. All through the pictures in this book you will search in vain for an angle-shot. Every object is regarded head-on (see above and Page 1) with the unsparing frankness of a Russian icon or a Flemish portrait. The facts pile up with the prints.
“This is neither a baroque nor a decorative, but a purely protestant attitude: meager, stripped, cold, and, on occasion, humorous. It is also the naked, difficult, solitary attitude of a member revolting from his own class, who knows best what in it must be uncovered, cauterized and why. The view is clinical. Evans is a visual doctor, diagnostician rather than specialist. But he is also the family physician, quiet and dispassionate, before whom even very old or very sick people are no longer ashamed to reveal themselves.
“There has been no need for Evans to dramatize his material with photographic tricks, because the material is already, in itself, intensely dramatic. Even the inanimate things, bureau drawers, pots, tires, bricks, signs, seem waiting in their own patient dignity, posing for their picture. The pictures of men and portraits of houses have only that ‘expression’ which the experience of their society and times has imposed on them. The faces, even those tired, vicious or content, are past reflecting accidental emotions. They are isolated and essentialized. The power of Evans’ work lies in the fact that he so details the effect of circumstances on familiar specimens that the single face, the single house, the single street, strikes with the strength of overwhelming numbers, the terrible cumulative force of thousands of faces, houses and streets.”
It is worth noting that MOMA made every effort to secure original negatives for its anniversary edition and that the negative for the photograph reproduced on Page 1 of Book Review comes from the photography collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum.