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Book Review: American Photographs

American Photographs. Photographs by Walker Evans.
Published by The Museum of Modern Art, 2012.
American Photographs
Reviewed by Alexandra Huddleston

American Photographs
Photographs by Walker Evans
The Museum of Modern Art, 2012. Hardbound. 208 pp., 87 duotone illustrations, 7-3/4x8-3/4".

In his lively and erudite essay in Walker Evans' first book American Photographs, Lincoln Kirstein writes, "The American reading public is fast becoming not even a looking-public, but a glancing or glimpsing public." Written for the first edition of the book in 1938, this statement has become even more relevant in our digital age, just as Evans' photographs still manage to defy the impatient eye of a modern viewer and draw her into a world in which deep looking and deep thinking are equally rewarded.

The 2012 Seventy-Fifth-Anniversary edition of American Photographs closely follows the 1938 first edition, from its cover, size, and paper to the photographic edit, print tone, and text. The book is a testament to the benefits of fine craftsmanship – just as was the original – and the MOMA has the money to devote to quality while still pricing the book low enough so that a younger generation of photography lovers can afford the luxury. The book's weight and size make it a pleasure to hold. The paper makes it fun to touch, and the print quality leads even long-time Walker Evans fans to notice new details in photographs that have long been old favorites. Did the street in part 1, plate 27 ever look quite as much like a gently flowing river? Did I ever notice the chalk scrawl "come up and see me sometime" in part 1, plate 1; or the cleanliness and freshness of the newspapers and towels in part 1, plate 6; or the girl spreading her dress as for a bow in part 1, plate 35?

American Photographs, by Walker Evans. Published by The Museum of Modern Art, 2012.
American Photographs, by Walker Evans. Published by The Museum of Modern Art, 2012.

We seem to be going through an era, again, in which the snap-shot aesthetic has gathered a dominant following in the photography world. If you doubt my 'again,' just read Kirstein's essay. This never-ending stream of imagery is easily accessible on multiplying websites from Instagram to Flikr and in a rapidly proliferating number of photography books whose overarching message seems to be a tenuous 'this is the way I see my world.'

What makes American Photographs any different? The title itself is about as vague as one can get while still remaining in the country… and it's actually a lie since some of the photographs were taken in Cuba and few were taken west of the Mississippi! Moreover, while each individual photograph is composed with a literary tightness, as a collective they couldn't be more different: we see different types of film used, different cameras, different crops, different page placements, and an eclectic array of different subjects. In truth, the book is as lop-sided a view of America as the photo studio storefront in part 1, plate 2. After all these years, it should be pretty clear that in over 210 mini-prints posted in the glass, no noticeably African-American faces appear in that collective portrait of Savannah, Georgia.

American Photographs, by Walker Evans. Published by The Museum of Modern Art, 2012.
American Photographs, by Walker Evans. Published by The Museum of Modern Art, 2012.

Why, then, does the book feel so specific, so unified, and so structured despite what is arguably a weak conceptual framework? A careful viewer will begin to realize that Evans organized the book's photographic edit with the same rigor as he did his compositions. The formal visual structure of part 2 is educational. Plates 2 through 5 are dominated by horizontal lines. Plates 6 through 11 all have strong vertical forms. The compositions in plates 12 through 25 contain powerful rectangles, and plates 26 through 37 are structured around arches. A similar breakdown can be done of part 1 based on the photographs' literal and emotional content. Moreover, there are countless smaller motifs bringing the disparate scenes together. In part 1, plate 40, the placement of the men's arms is a direct link to the placement of the couple's arms in the subsequent photograph, both of which encourage the viewer to notice the arms and hands in plates 42, 44, and 45.

Perhaps it's true that there is no more unifying concept to this book other than 'this is the way Walker Evans saw his world.' However, this newest edition of American Photographs reminds us that Evans' vision has managed to capture and keep our wayward attention because of its solid foundation in fine craftsmanship, rigorous structure, and deep thinking.—ALEXANDRA HUDDLESTON

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ALEXANDRA HUDDLESTON is an American photographer who was born in Freetown, Sierra Leone, and grew up in the Washington, DC area and in West Africa. She holds a BA from Stanford University and an MS in broadcast journalism from Columbia University. Her work has been published in The New York Times, Zeit Magazine, and National Geographic Explorer, and exhibited in group and solo shows worldwide. Among other honors, she has received a Fulbright Grant for her photographic work. Her prints are in the permanent collection of the US Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division and the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of African Art Eliot Elisofon Photo Archives. In 2012 Huddleston published her first artists’ book Lost Things under her own imprint. She is currently working on publishing her next book “333 Saints: a Life of Scholarship in Timbuktu,” a project that explores the legacy of traditional Islamic scholarship in this famous Malian city.