Retrospective

From the Archives: Walker Evans’s Brilliant Camera Records of Modern America, in 1938

Walker Evans, Joe's Auto Graveyard, 1936, gelatin-silver print.©WALKER EVANS ARCHIVE, THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART/IAN REEVES/PRIVATE COLLECTION, SAN FRANCISCO

Walker Evans, Joe’s Auto Graveyard, 1936, gelatin-silver print.

©WALKER EVANS ARCHIVE, THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART/IAN REEVES/PRIVATE COLLECTION, SAN FRANCISCO

With a major survey of Walker Evans’s photographs having opened this week at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, we turn back to the October 8, 1938 issue of ARTnews, in which Martha Davidson wrote about the artist’s “brilliant camera records” of the United States as it grew more urbanized and industrialized. Noting the photographer’s attention to detail, Davidson compared Evans’s work to social photography. Her review follows in full below.

Walker Evans, Main Street, Saratoga Springs, New York, 1931, gelatin-silver print.©WALKER EVANS ARCHIVE, METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART/FERNANDO MAQUIEIRA, CROMOTEX/PRIVATE COLLECTION, SAN FRANCISCO

Walker Evans, Main Street, Saratoga Springs, New York, 1931, gelatin-silver print.

©WALKER EVANS ARCHIVE, METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART/FERNANDO MAQUIEIRA, CROMOTEX/PRIVATE COLLECTION, SAN FRANCISCO

“Evans’ Brilliant Camera Records of Modern America”
By Martha Davidson
October 8, 1938

During the past decade the photographer, Walker Evans, has made an impressive record of American life. At times sympathetic, at times humorous, even contemptuous in his choice of subjects, he is almost always coldly objective. He has spurned artifice and resisted the accidental effects of the candid camera in order to follow “straight” photography. In his photographs, the curious anomalies of contemporary life in America are exposed relentlessly, free from falsification, exaggeration or distortion. They are social documents made in the traditions of [Mathew] Brady, the first great American photographer who left so striking a record of the Civil War.

It is unusual for Evans to emphasize, as he does in The Relic, the abstract beauty of fortuitous forms. He does not, however, ignore the principles of formal composition. On the contrary, he is an extremely careful composer; that is to say he selects his subjects and his point of view so that the pictorial elements of the scene are naturally marshalled into a design full of balanced relationships and significant contrasts. His scenes of large distances are “organized” much less expertly than his views of façades, billboards or scenes close at hand, a faultless example of which is the superbly simple Connecticut Framehouse. There are photographs of the people of America and the peculiarly conglomerate architecture of this country — curious relics of the Greek and Gothic revivals such as cheap pressed tin Corinthian capitals and stately buildings plastered with Furnished Rooms signs. There are photographs, like Main Street, Saratoga Springs, and those of twisted iron bedsteads, American symbols of poverty, that eternalize the subjects in the moment selected by the camera. It is this evidence of the ability to seize an instant in time, that becomes the signature of Walker Evans’ photographs. Remarkable is the clarity with which space and informative details, of which the artist is unsparing, have been presented.

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