Books | Walker Evans: Depth of Field
Photo: Cinema, Havana, 1933.
The cover of Walker Evans: Depth of Field (Prestel) says it all. In between a sea of disembodied eyeballs floating freely across a black page, the words of Evans remind us of his creed: “Stare. It is the way to educate your eye, and more. Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long.”
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Born in 1903 in St. Louis, MI, Evans rose to prominence as a photographer working for the Farm Security Administration (FSA), documenting the effects of the Great Depression with his large-format camera. He took up photography in 1928, publishing his first works in the poetry book The Bridge by Hart Crane, before undertaking a series of studies in Boston (1931) and Cuba (1933) before joining the FSA in 1935.
The following summer, Evans and the writer James Agee went to Hale County, Alabama, on assignment for Forbes. The story was not published until 1941 in the groundbreaking book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. The book’s detailed account of three farming families living in rural poverty during the height of the Great Depression became one of the great works of the era, elevating documentary photography to the realm of fine art.
Edited by John T. Hill and Heinz Liesbrock, Walker Evans: Depth of Field details the trajectory of his artistic career, beginning with his early street photography and concluding with his late embrace of the color Polaroid. The book features his famous and letter known works, including Victorian and antebellum architecture, Cuba, and Florida’s Gulf Coast, as well his Fortune magazine portfolios, made in the mid-twentieth century.
As Evans observed, “The secret of photography is, the camera takes on the character and personality of the handler.” In looking at the images, organized chronologically, we get a sense of Evans’s own life, the paths he took and journeys he made with the camera as his guide. He revealed, “Whether he is an artist or not, the photographer is a joyous sensualist, for the simple reason that the eye traffics in feelings, not in thoughts.”
The photograph becomes a way of look and reading the world, a story that is told in every language simultaneously, without ever saying a word. Evans understood, “With the camera, it’s all or nothing. You either get what you’re after at once, or what you do has to be worthless. I don’t think the essence of photography has the hand in it so much. The essence is done very quietly with a flash of the mind, and with a machine. I think too that photography is editing, editing after the taking. After knowing what to take, you have to do the editing.”
In that same way, a book requires the same expertise, the ability to discern between the good and the great. Walker Evans: Depth of Field does this brilliantly, making it a stand out among Evans’ monographs as a comprehensive guide to one of the masters of the art.
All photos: © Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.