Walker's picture perfect is cut dead

Walker Evans

May 17, 2002

Cool, detached, precise and acutely cultured, Walker Evans is, for me, not only the greatest of American photographers, but also the consummate representative of that idea, the postmodern American artist. The hallmark of an Evans photograph is a sense of perfected restraint, and he took infinite care in his own lifetime over the work he exhibited and published. Evans had no private income and was never able to sustain a living from his own work. I would estimate that outside of his commercial work for, among others, the magazines Architectural Forum , Hound and Horn and Fortune , as well as the work he did for the Farm Security Administration and the New York Museum of Modern Art (Moma), he published fewer than 400 of his own photographs. His subway train photographs from 1939, eventually published in 1966 as the book Many Are Called , account for 89 of them. This leaves just over 300 published images in a career that spans 46 years.

In Walker Evans , which was also the catalogue for the "Walker Evans" exhibition that recently toured the US, of the 120 images used to illustrate Evans's work are cropped differently from the way Evans was known to have cropped them for an exhibition or publication. There is no explanation to accompany the plates to detail why the Metropolitan Museum is using these different versions of known images. I know that they may be "work" prints from Evans's estate, and I do not doubt their origins, only that they are not the versions that he used. I would have thought that every time there is a variation from what Evans was known to have exhibited and published, then it should be unequivocally stated. In this publication Evans is being, at the least, misrepresented and even undermined by such a cavalier stance. In an Evans photograph, his precise endeavour to depict reality is also dependent on the precision of his cropping and framing. When this was coupled with the perfect photographic quality that he was able to instil in a final image (especially when using the large-format camera), the result could be sublime.

Evans's images are small and in the Met's exhibition seemed wonderfully and beautifully dated in this age of overblown presentation. Their scale demands attention, as the images are redolent with all the information that only a large negative can deliver. The more you look, the more you see. Our eyes, our brains are not photographic, the amount of information delivered, so instantaneously complete, can be undermining and overwhelming. Evans's astuteness always ensured that he was very careful to underplay these factors. He was subtle, and no one could mistake an Evans photograph for the more vulgar work of his West Coast counterparts. Evans knew only too well the dangers of photography and how its excesses could seem "obscene".

A prime example of Evans at his sublime best should be the 1931 photograph Main Street, Saratoga Springs . The Met's own print of this image, the one published here, is a travesty. The contrast in this oddly cropped version is far, far too high, far too harsh. It is, I think, a "reject" print. It may be a print from Evans's studio, but it is certainly not a print that Evans would ever have exhibited or published. If this exhibition and publication are meant to honour Evans, why not do him justice? This is a key image, so surely one could borrow one of the very best prints available. (I know of three better prints of this image in other institutions.) Photographers experiment in the dark room, making many versions of one image. Different cropping, different contrasts, different sizes. These prints are usually called "work" or "study" prints. Most photographers' studios are full of them, and often there are very few final exhibition prints. In 1974, Evans, in the desperate last year of his life, sold the entire contents of his studio to a dealer (who then quickly sold them for a profit to another dealer) for $100,000. There were 5,500 prints in this sale, an awful lot of them work prints. Ironic to think that the low estimate for a single Evans print at auction in New York last year was $40,000.

To return to the book: plate No. 66, Penny Picture Display, Savannah, 1936 , this image was appropriated from a commercial photographer's studio window display. A postmodern icon, it is made up of a grid containing 193 recognisably individual, passport-sized photographs whose individuality is almost swamped by the serialised presentation in grid form. The photographs are fabulously ordinary, which of course, was the attraction for Evans: how ordinary and how extraordinary we all are. Unfortunately, in this version of this seminally important image, which the Met has on loan from the La Salle Bank Photography Collection, the cropping is, yet again, so different from that used by Evans. It violates the individual portraits by cutting into them, severing heads. If you examine the same image, which Evans exhibited at Moma and published as plate No. 2 in American Photographs (1938), none of the 193 images is cropped in any way. They all remain sacrosanct, which in so many ways, is the point of the photograph. Evans's original image is a knowing parody of photography and a commentary on mechanical reproduction, but it is also handled with ironic care. The poised and perfect symmetry of Evans's original version is lost in the crude cropping of this borrowed print, which acts, by comparison, to undermine Evans's published intent.

Plate No. 91, Kitchen Corner, Burrough Family Cabin , is a severely cropped version from the Met's own collection of the uncropped image that appears in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and in the Moma publication of his 1971 exhibition. Should the caption of the Met's version read "detail from Kitchen Corner, Burrough Family Cabin ", or "work print from the original print of Kitchen Corner, Burrough Family Cabin first published in 1941 in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men "? My point is that Evans continued to publish and exhibit the uncropped version of this image over a period of 30 years and this fact surely must be acknowledged.

What is important to me and others is the work of Evans, not the Met's version of his work. The intended work, the versions that Evans published and exhibited in his lifetime, are of paramount and defining importance. Everything else, the other versions, is essentially process. They are of the work, but secondary to it, part of its history before it was presented as a final statement. Evans was careful never directly to discuss his own work, never to compromise an image with opinion or in any other way. The work that he presented was the distillation of his belief.

Space will not permit me to write on the other 24 cropped versions in this presentation, but it is hard to imagine anyone seriously interested in Evans approving of anything in this publication. Ultimately, this is a very flawed book that hopelessly confuses content and context, and the five dutiful texts that accompany it amount to nothing more than vanity publishing. A tawdry museum piece that only Sotheby's is going to collect.

Chris Killip is professor of visual and environmental studies, Harvard University, Massachusetts, United States.

Walker Evans

Author - Maria Morris Hambourg, Jeff L. Rosenheim, Douglas Eklund and Mia Fineman
ISBN - 0 691 05078 3
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Price - £45.00
Pages - 318

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