Walker Evans: American Photographs – Book

I have already touched on this book in the context of Exercise 1.3 but thought it merits a separate entry of its own to deal with some other observations I have on it.

Walker Evans is in some ways the grandfather of contemporary American photography and seems to me to be worth going back to.  This is certainly the view of some of today’s teachers, not least Larry Fink – see the review of his book “On Composition and Improvisation” and Fulford and Halpern’s “The Photographer’s Playbook”:

“it’s never a bad thing to look at Walker Evans”


This book, and the original exhibition that it records back in 1938, is very much one of two parts.  The first half is Evans as socially engaged observer and commentator.  His principal subjects are people and race – a big issue in the ’20s and ’30s.  His view is direct and unflinching but never, I feel, obtrusive or intrusive, nor unsympathetic.  My sense is that this work paved the way for later photographers, such as in particular William Eggleston, also working in poor and deprived areas where race was a major issue.

The second half is much more concerned with place.  An apparently odd disjunction from the first half of the book, it is much less concerned with people.  Indeed people are often noticeable by their absence.  In this respect his work reminds me of the earlier work of Atget, who we have also looked at in this part of the course.  His Parisian street scenes were, I understand, commonly shot early in the morning (hence the characteristically soft light) when few people were abroad.  Where people do appear, such as in a number of his brothel pictures, they are very much tied to, and part of the scene Atget was recording, and presumably posed accordingly.  (I had made this connection before reading Kirstein’s essay which also makes reference to Atget.)

So far as Kirstein is concerned, I am glad that the essay comes towards the end, rather than before the photographs.  I had the chance, as a result, to look through the images, and think about their sequence without any preconceptions raised by the essay, and free from any influence of Kirstein’s oddly dyspeptic view of photography as it was practiced then (and presumably still is to a large extent today).  I cannot honestly say I derived much benefit from the essay on a first reading.  no doubt I will revisit it, but not as much as I will revisit Evans’ work.


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