PRINT December 2020


Svetlana Alpers’s Walker Evans: Starting from Scratch

Photo: Brian Green

The first 143 pages of Walker Evans: Starting from Scratch (Princeton), Svetlana Alpers’s new book, are given over to full-page reproductions of Evans’s photographs. No preface, set of acknowledgments, or copyright page precedes or interrupts the pictures. Even captions have been swept off the page. (They appear in list form after the plates.) Alpers asks us, quite literally, to look before we read. Her book’s layout mirrors that of American Photographs (1938) and Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), but it also embodies her commitment to the primacy of photographic looking and making.

Alpers’s forthright style of writing matches that of Evans’s photography. Neither engages in rhetorical excess or showboating. Discussing Corrugated Tin Façade, 1936, she writes, “Keep in mind his taste for tin. It was a humble American material and it attracted Evans’s eye. But its beauty here, as elsewhere, is a sign of loss—a tin false front to the building with its castaway pile of dirt.” As Alpers demonstrates, Evans saw America, too, as a “false front,” a rickety structure whose beauty was bound to its losses and dilapidation. 

Toward the end of the book, Alpers cites Evans on his selection of subject matter: “How did I choose it? I might say that it chose me.” I might say much the same about this book. I did not expect a premier scholar of Dutch Golden Age and European Baroque painting to write a monograph on Evans. By sharing her voice and views of the photographer so directly, and by grounding those views in the particularity of photographic making, Alpers allows me the room to judge matters for myself and to see Evans’s engagement with the world in a new way. Walker Evans: Starting from Scratch “chose” me. Many readers of this superb book will be similarly chosen in the future.

Richard Meyer is Robert and Ruth Halperin Professor in art history and Interim Director of the Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program at Stanford University.