In this post I look at the photos of Walker Evans (1903 – 1975), in his renowned book, American Photographs. As photos of their time, they are all in black and white. The book was first published in 1938, following an exhibition of the works in MoMa, New York. The cover material tells us that we should look at the images in sequence – the photos are deliberately arranged as a series in two parts. The first part of the book, showing us the life and people of American and the second, the architecture. It is intended to show us what life was like in America.
The photographic style is straight, revealing details of the scenes and people photographed. Mostly, Evans takes a point of view immediately facing the scene, which makes it easy for us to examine the details in the photos. Evans tells us (Cummings) that he was ‘photographing against the style of the time, against salon photography, against beauty photography, against art photography.’
While the photos show detailed information, they are carefully composed, with the frame containing no distractions from the main subject of each photo. They have a kind of calmness. I think that is one aspect that makes the photos remarkable – they show us carefully framed extracts from everyday life but feel like still-lives rather than the active-lives.
Evans himself (Cummings) defines the documentary-style that is associated with his work:
I use the word “style” particularly because in talking about it many people say “documentary photograph.” Well, literally a documentary photograph is a police report of a dead body or an automobile accident or something like that. But the style of detachment and record is another matter. That applied to the world around us is what I do with the camera, what I want to see done with the camera.
‘Detachment’ is another word for what I feel when looking at the photos. I do not feel involved, like I would in the work of modern photographers such as Joe Meyerowitz. This allows me to better take in the facts or details of the photos, without strong emotions being conveyed in the images.
Like William Eggleston, who came much later, Evan’s subject matter is banal but Evans is interested in showing us the detail of the subject matter. For example, the signage outside a photography store or a garage with tyres and spare parts displayed outside. Whereas Eggleston’s images are more concerned with the interaction of forms and colours, often with little in the way of details.
Evans’ photos provide a record of what places were like in America at that time. As a non-American and a viewer over 75 years after the event, they are interesting. Would the same approach be interesting in my local environment now, when travelling is convenient, and when photographic images are all around us? A question to consider in a review of the work of modern photographers.
Cummings P (1971). Smithsonion Archives of American Art [website]. Interview with Walker Evans [transcript of interview]. Available from: http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-walker-evans-11721 [accessed 18.8.15]
Evans W (1938). Walker Evans: American Photographs. UK, 75th anniversary ed., Tate Enterprises Ltd.
Jeffrey I. Photography – a concise history (p172-177). London, 1981, Thames and Hudson.
Kim E (2013). Eric Kim Photography [blog]. What Walker Evans taught me about street photography. Available from: http://erickimphotography.com/blog/2013/09/05/17-lessons-walker-evans-has-taught-me-about-street-photography/ [accessed 18.8.15]