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Walker Evans: The Getty Museum Collection by Judith Keller, 1995
Getty. ISBN 0-89236-317-7. 410 pages. You can order this book from amazon.com
Walker Evans (1903-1975) started photographing New York City in 1927,
recording its patterns and people during the day and working as a clerk on Wall
Street at night. Eugene Atget, whose great life work was the photographing of
Paris, died the same year and, if you want to make a hit at Art Crit cocktail
parties, it is worth pointing out that Evans picked up Atget's torch to some
By 1935, Evans had a grander vision of documenting "American life": "What do I
want to do? I know now is the time for picture books. .. Something perhaps
smaller. Toledo, Ohio, maybe. Then I'm not sure a book of photos should be
identified locally. American city is what I'm after... People, all classes,
surrounded by bunches of the new down-and-out. Automobiles and the automobile
landscape. Architecture, American urban taste, commerce, small scale, large
scale, the city street atmosphere, the street smell, the hateful stuff, women's
clubs, fake culture, bad education, religion in decay..."
Evans got the Federal Government to pay for most of this work, which, in
October 1938, formed the basis of the first ever one-man show of photography at
the Museum of Modern Art. That year, Evans began to photograph people in the New
York City subway. He strapped a Contax 35mm camera to his chest, concealed it
underneath a coat, and operated the shutter with a release running down his
sleeve. These were published in 1966 as Many are Called.
During World Word II, Walker Evans chronicled workers and industry for big
magazines then became a staff photographer at Fortune in 1945, a
position he held for 20 years before being sucked into Academia. Even if you
aren't impressed by his photographs, there is something grand about a college
dropout becoming a Yale professor.
If that sounds like a terribly gray portrait of Evans's life, it is about as
much as you're going to get from this enormous book. You won't hear about the
second marriage... to a woman half his age. The 1,138 duotones and 31 color
photos are inspiring, of course, but the text is bland and disjointed. There must
be a problem fundamental to writing a book about a photographer where the focus
is "pictures that Museum X happens to own," even when Museum X owns 1,169. This
problem is most apparent when, for each picture, you learn the dimensions in
centimeters of the print the Getty Museum happens to own, the dimension again in
inches, any pencil marks that were made on the front or back, whether it was/is
mounted, and a bunch of catalog numbers. But you never learn what kind of camera
or film was used.
What I like about Walker Evans, and what I like to think resulted in his being
adopted by Yale, was how articulate he was about photography. To that end, I'm
compiling a list here of my favorite quotes:
"Stare. It is the way to educate your eye, and more. Stare, pry,
listen eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long."
"With the camera, it's all or nothing. You either get what you're after at
once, or what you do has to be worthless. I don't think the essence of
photography has the hand in it so much. The essence is done very quietly with a
flash of the mind, and with a machine. I think too that photography is editing,
editing after the taking. After knowing what to take, you have to do the