By Kenneth Tanaka
American Photographs by Walker Evans has just been reissued by the original publisher for the first time in a quarter century. The new reissue is the 75th Anniversary Edition. Here are the links:
Ask any in-the-know photo history enthusiast to name a seminal American photo book and chances are s/he will immediately cite The Americans by Robert Frank. Yes, that storied 1958 book is a good choice. But there is an even more seminal book.
In 1938, 20 years before Robert Frank's The Americans, New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) held its second* one-man photographic show, titled American Photographs. The show, basically a 100-print, 10-year retrospective of the 35-year-old Walker Evans, was accompanied by a book (not a catalog) that has since become arguably the most important photo book in the history of the medium in this country. In fact Robert Frank has often cited Walker Evans as being a significant influence in his work**.
You could be excused for not knowing American Photographs. Although it has been previously reprinted twice since its first edition, it never garnered the wide publicity or the following that Robert Frank's The Americans attracted. It was not the controversial body of work that The Americans was, nor is it as starkly provocative. These are quiet, almost deadpan images that often require study and consideration to appreciate. If many of Frank's images seem like frames clipped from a movie, Evans' images are like a long stare. The longer you look the more you see (not exclusively with your eyes, either).
American Photographs features one of the most austere designs you'll encounter in a photo book. Taking readers on a rather lyrical tour of America and Americans during the Great Depression, its 87 large format, captionless black-and-white images are presented one per page with the image on the recto faced by a blank numbered page on the verso. Captions for images are listed separately at the end of each of the book's two sections. Evans wanted readers to view the images serially, and without the "distraction" of supplemental information.
It's interesting to note the strong design similarity between The Americans and American Photographs—more evidence of Robert Frank's admiration of Evans?
How does this newest edition compare to the original? Coincidentally, several days before this edition began shipping (unbeknownst to me), I was involved in reviewing some of the 200+ Evans prints we have at the Art Institute of Chicago, and spent much of the day with one of the Museum's first editions of American Photographs. So my memory of the first edition is quite clear as I write that this new edition is absolutely gorgeous compared to the original. The basic design is quite faithful to the first edition. But the 87 rich duotones of the new edition make the original edition's look like pencil sketches. The crisp type of the new book is also an enormous improvement over the lumpy type of 1938's book. This is actually a most powerful testament to the remarkable advancements that the graphic arts industry has made in 75 years. Of course if you're an antiquarian you will probably continue to lust after a $1,200–$1,500+*** fine/near-fine copy of the first edition. But if you want the book that Evans and MoMA could only have dreamed of producing in 1938, you'll want this newest edition.
If you think you do not like Walker Evans' work, that's cool, but buy this book right now anyway, particularly if you're a young (<40) and devoted photo enthusiast. It's a no-lose proposition. MoMA has priced this 75th anniversary edition at a very reasonable $35 list ($23.10 on Amazon). It will most certainly sell out before long and soon be accessible only on the secondary market for far higher prices. If you continue to pursue photography there's a good chance that you will eventually grow to appreciate much of the work in this book. But even if you don't you will certainly be able to resell the book at a handsome profit. Win-win.
UPDATE: As of late Tuesday, Amazon.com is saying 1–3 weeks for delivery, which means they're awaiting new stock from the publisher. But also, they've reduced the price to $21. —Ed.
*American Photographs was originally declared as MoMA's first one-man photographic show. But Sarah Hermanson Meister notes at the back of this 75th anniversary edition that it was actually the second such show. The first was a 1933 show of architectural photographs...also by Evans.
**For example, the 1958 U.S. Camera annual features a tribute to Frank’s Guggenheim grant work (which would, later that year, be first published in the U.S. as The Americans) by Evans. It also features a statement by Frank in which he notes: "The work of two contemporary photographers, Bill Brandt of England and the American, Walker Evans have influenced me. When I first looked at Walker Evans' photographs, I thought of something Malraux write: 'To transform destiny into awareness.'"
***Or more. —MJ.
Note (from Ken): For those interested in the relationship and parallels between Evans and Frank, Todd Papageorge presents an excellent comparative essay in Core Curriculum: Writings on Photography. Aperture Foundation, 2011, pp. 64–74. The essay, and the whole book of Papgeorge's essays and talks, is well worth the read!
Featured Comment by Jeff: "The original cost of the 1938 first edition (as marked on my excellent copy) was $2.50. At the long term average U.S. inflation rate of 3.43%, that equates to just over $30 today. So the Amazon price is a real bargain. :-)"
Featured Comment by James: "Another reason to get this book: as Kirstein rightly points out in the accompanying essay, these photographs have to be seen together, in a series. I'd seen single Walker Evans pictures reproduced here and there, and I confess they weren't doing much for me. It wasn't a matter of general photographic taste. Given what I like (Adams, Shore, Gossage, Graham...), I expected to like Evans too. My copy of this new edition arrived a few days ago (nice to be ahead of the TOP curve!), and although it's still early days, I can already see what I was missing. It was the whole: the patience, logic, contrast, accumulation, development. The steady, thoughtful, unfolding. Obvious, really."
Question from cb: "How do the duotones in the new issue compare to original prints? I want to perceive the original look not some oversharpened digital forgery."
Ken Tanaka replies: Although I am not an Evans scholar or expert, I have seen enough Evans prints (of our 200+ prints at the AIC) to offer an opinion. In brief, the book's plates look as good and often better than the prints I've seen. Note that Evans was not a printer. His work has been printed by various people for various purposes over the years, each imposing a degree of interpretation on the images. As such, some sets of prints by a particular printer might be favored over those by another. (Not at all unlike, for example, Henri Cartier-Bresson prints.) Among the most important reasons to get, or at least see, American Photographs is to get a visual benchmark of Evans' own intentions. For example, the Art Institute of Chicago has three prints of the iconic "Sidewalk and Shopfront, New Orleans, 1935" (Section 1 plate 5), each probably printed by a different person and each with slightly different crops. [Compare this to this, for example —Ed.] The plate in the book represents the way in which Evans himself wanted to present the image.