Depth of Field, Walker Evans (Prestel)
More than anyone else, Walker Evans made the vernacular a respected field for photography, taking the documentary style of newspapers and magazines to the level of art, holding a mirror up to ordinary life. This book is a retrospective: not just his classic, dispassionate work of the Depression era but material from before and after those years. He managed to do nearly all his work as paid assignments, a remarkable achievement, and his famous New York subway project was a rare exception.
This book is packed with photographs that cannot be forgotten, like the ‘Alabama Cotton tenant Farmer’s Wife’ that captures dignity and goodness in the scrubbed face of a woman standing against a wall of her clapboard house. Her willingness to pose so unaffectedly is more understandable in the light of knowing that Evans spent three weeks in Hale County, Alabama getting to know people and win their trust. He was there with James Agee on a writing assignment for Fortune magazine and looking at the photos Evans took it comes as no surprise to learn the magazine declined to publish them.
Evans’ early work is more formalist than the photography he became famous for in later years but it is also reflective. In New York in the late 1920s and early ‘30s, he took to capturing the presence of Brooklyn Bridge, the barges moving below them and workers taking lunch on the streets and people on the sidewalks. Faces interest him but in his search for what he called ‘contemporary truth and reality’ he photographs people not just for their unique individuality – he likes them to look straight into the camera — but also for the social semiotics they embody. This shows in his Cuba photographs of 1933 and it never leaves him although he finds meaning also in buildings, gas stations, billboards, the interior of a barber’s shop. Middle-class suburban life has little interest for Evans.
The New York subway work, lasting from 1938 to 1941, came after Alabama but there are many sections in Depth of Field that bring less well-known projects to our attention. In 1941 he was photographer for a book called The Mangrove Coast: The Story of the West Coast of Florida but five years later he is back on city streets doing what he likes best, taking unposed pictures of working people going about their lives, and it continues into the 1950s. Formalist concerns return in his late work of the ‘60s and ‘70s when he sets about celebrating ordinary hand tools—‘the fine naked impression of heft and bite’ in a wrench or ‘the beautiful plumb bob’—and in more of his own words he says something about them that extends to his achievement as a whole: ‘…small tools stand, aesthetically speaking, for elegance, candor, and purity’.