PRINT October 2014


Walker Evans: The Magazine Work

THIS BOOK IS ABOUT the overlooked work of Walker Evans. We know the iconic photographs he made in the South in the mid-1930s, we know his subway portraits (shot between 1938 and 1941, though not published until twenty years later), and we know the memorable Polaroids he made at the end of his life. But his early magazine work (his first published folio was in 1930, in the Architectural Record) and his years with Luce publications—briefly at Time and then at Fortune magazine, from 1943 to ’65, as special photographic editor for the last seventeen years—have been either ignored or considered a sad waste of his time. David Campany’s study of what he calls Evans’s “career in print” proves otherwise. Walker Evans: The Magazine Work concerns photography on printed pages often accompanied by Evans’s pungent antiestablishment texts. (We are reminded that Evans started out wanting to be a writer and that he called photography “the most literary of the graphic arts.”) This is photography directly engaged with the conditions of American life and with a problematic sense of the relationship of his images to what is called art. It is an alternative to much photography on exhibit today.

We are so used to seeing photographs in galleries and on the walls of museums that we forget their relationship to the printed page and text. An illustration here shows that Evans’s well-known 1931 image Damaged—a picture of workers loading a sign onto a truck—started out on a page in a magazine, linked to the typographic flourishes of a calligram above. Evans repeatedly said that what he worked for was the visual effect of a sequence of photos and the relationship between image and text rather than a single artistic image.

“Labor Anonymous: On a Saturday Afternoon in Downtown Detroit,” from the November 1946 Fortune, is a riveting two-page spread of eleven photos arranged in a three-by-two grid on each page, of people from the workforce on their day off. Evans reserves one slot, lower right and center, for his text. Belying the title, the photographs insist on the individuality of each worker and—further—do not show any at work. Campany zeroes in on the conditions of working in this domain: “What is a photographic document? How do we read it?” he asks. “Where do its values come from? And how can audiences be invited to think about all this?”

These questions are nowhere more apt than in Evans’s series in the April 1946 Fortune, “Homes of Americans,” which depicts interiors across the United States at the time of a national housing shortage. A Shaker doorway is placed beside Mrs. Vanderbilt’s drawing room. Campany remarks, “Clearly none of the effect of ‘Homes of Americans’ survives if the images are removed and re-presented. The gesture is entirely specific to these pages.”These are photos as documents, and not primarily, as the Conceptualists later proposed, as art. “People and Places in Trouble” in Fortune, March1961, is an eight-page spread of diversely scaled images with a brief text placed beside the largest image. Campany notes that Evans “made a deft connection between the mute stillness of photography and the paralyzing effects of unemployment.” There are spreads on cities, on the common tool, on sidewalk goods, on the wrecking of buildings, on colorful architectural details—striking things, all of which will pass. As Evans famously thought to write, he “was, and is, interested in what any present time will look like as the past.”

Campany’s book is yet another rediscovery of Evans. By 1962, when curator John Szarkowski came to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Evans’s work had slipped into public oblivion. When he was considered, it was, mistakenly, as a photographer engaged in social protest. In a 1971 exhibition, Szarkowski set the record straight about Evans and found magnificent ways to write about his photographs’ central place in the work of younger American photographers. But because the terms were set by the museum rather than the illustrated magazine, more than twenty years of magazine work were mostly bypassed. Campany comments, “Judging by the flurry of interviews he gave in the 1970s, Evans was ambivalent about this but went along with it.”

Huge economic inequality and searing unemployment are back in the world and in the news. And New York is again experiencing wreckers—buildings are being razed and towers to house the superrich go up helter-skelter all over town. The materials and the need for photography are there.

In a 1931 book review for the small art and literary review Hound & Horn, Evans evaluated what he called “the reappearance of photography” in which he intended to take part. When Evans did, he did so in a way that looked old-fashioned at the time: He did not court effects made possible by the new faster lenses, film, and shutters, artificial lights, and miniature cameras of the day. Unlike painting, which developed over time, photography has always been an experimental practice. Anything is possible at any time.

Will the documentary commitment of Evans come again? Campany’s book suggests the question is not only about the moral force of photographs but also about the contexts in which they are made to be seen.

Svetlana Alpers is an art historian based in New York and Paris.