Walker Evans

Last weekend I made it out to the Cantor Center in order to see their Walker Evans exhibition. It’s very good—to the point where it also almost feels like a history exhibition rather than an art exhibition. So much of his work is tied up into the greater context of American History that it’s possible to come out of the exhibition just thinking about the time period his photos come from.

What I find interesting is that I don’t get any real sense of empathy in his photographs of people. The photos are flattering in their formality* but they also come across as somewhat intrusive and confrontational. This results in an interesting comparison between his photos in America and his photos abroad where, for once, there isn’t much difference.** I get the sense that even in his travels, he was always a bit of an outsider.

*Reminding me actually of Avedon’s work—specifically his American West.

**Unlike what I see so often where an American photographer travels abroad and takes photos of the 3rd-world natives as if they were specimens to be cataloged.

Evans’s keen formal eye though makes his architecture photographs very interesting. And his series of re-croppings from older negatives shows how he would re-envision a scene and formalize it over and over again.

I can’t help but wonder if the sense of intrusiveness is what prompted his subway photos. Shooting with a hidden camera obviously makes things a lot more unguarded though it doesn’t really address the intrusiveness issue. That the photos work is a testament to the respect with which he treats his subjects—even if they’re unaware.

A lot of people would use a hidden camera* to take photos of people in a way which would mock them. Evans avoids this trap and presents his subjects with a certain dignity. I’m reminded of the way I peoplewatch while riding public transportation—avoid the weirdos and don’t gawk at embarrassing things, instead just watch what’s in front of me and avoid eye contact with everyone else as they do the same.

*Heck, any camera.

The photos I like best are his signage photos—whether it’s his old depression era photos, his 1970s polaroid shots,* or the numerous other signs which exist in the background of many of his prints.** Maybe it’s because I’m a type junkie. But there’s something to the layered crafts and the way that the message changes as signs age, are layered together,*** or have pieces cropped off. I can admire the lettering, signmaking, and photography all together as each component is graphically considered but someone different yet all the pieces come together in the final image.

*These polaroid shots are 40 years ahead of their time and are what kids with instagram are attempting to achieve now.

**I so craved a Coke after looking at this exhibition

***Speaking of which. Would his Broadway print (above) even count as a photograph today?

One last thought/rant. A number of Fortune Magazine spreads are displayed since they contain all the color photography that Evans published. No prints. The wall text says that this is because Evans didn’t print anything while he was alive and so the published magazines represent the only true prints he did. This is a shame and makes no sense to me.

  1.  The color photographs are on Kodachrome. Which means that we’re pretty certain what they’re supposed to look like.
  2. The published portfolios already tell us which images he selected for publication.
  3. Printing from the slides (if available) will look way better than faded CMYK offset printing at 133LPI on yellowing paper.
  4. Who says that the photographer has to be the editor? It’s not a problem for Vivian Maier or NASA.

Also at the Cantor

There is a selection of Weston photographs hidden in the Early-modern Europe Gallery. This is also worth seeing. It’s a couple dozen prints roughly organized by texture. Which means that nudes are next to peppers. As they should be.

I’m familiar with Weston’s work more by osmosis than through any conscious study. I suspect that many photographers are the same. Some artists you lean by name and associate with specific things. Others have influence which just creeps into you. Weston is one of those sneaky ones who I’ve absorbed without realizing it. So it’s good to be reminded of this and to consciously see his work.

Author: Nick Vossbrink

Blogging about Photography, Museums, Printing, and Baseball Cards from both Princeton New Jersey and the San Francisco Bay Area. On Twitter as @vossbrink, WordPress at njwv.wordpress.com, and the web at vossbrink.net

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