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Walker Evans

Text from Unclassified: A Walker Evans Anthology

"The Reappearance of Photography"

Book review
Published in Hound & Horn, #5 (October-December 1931)

Under the guise of a roundup of recently published photography books, in this article Evans constructed a history for the medium in defiance of the two most popular currents of photographic art: the painterly practice of Pictorialists, and the glossy commercial pictures that aped "New Vision" experimentation. Instead, the author proposed historically inflected photography true to its own inherent qualities of description and capable of an "editing of society." A typically oblique, indirect statement of intent, Evans's essay is a virtual manifesto of the documentary mode and a classic in the literature on photography.

The Reappearance of Photography

The real significance of photography was submerged soon after its discovery. The event was simply the linking of an already extant camera with development and fixation of image. Such a stroke of practical invention was an indirect hit which in application was bound to become tied up in the peculiar dishonesty of vision of its period. The latter half of the nineteenth century offers that fantastic figure, the art photographer, really an unsuccessful painter with a bag of mysterious tricks. He is by no means a dead tradition even now, still gathered into clubs to exhibit pictures of misty October lanes, snow scenes, reflets dans l'eau, young girls with crystal balls. In these groups arises the loud and very suspicious protest about photography being an art. So there is in one of the anthologies under review a photo of a corpse in a pool of blood because you like nice things.

Suddenly there is a difference between a quaint evocation of the past and an open window looking straight down a stack of decades. The element of time entering into photography provides a departure for as much speculation as an observer cares to make. Actual experiments in time, actual experiments in space exactly suit a post war state of mind. The camera doing both, as well as reflecting swift chance, disarray, wonder, and experiment, it is not surprising that photography has come to a valid flowering the third period of its history.

Certain men of the past century have been renoticed who stood away from this confusion. Eugene Atget worked right through a period of utter decadence in photography. He was simply isolated, and his story is a little difficult to understand. Apparently he was oblivious to everything but the necessity of photographing Paris and its environs; but just what vision he carried in him of the monument he was leaving is not clear. It is possible to read into his photographs so many things he may never have formulated to himself In some of his work he even places himself in a position to be pounced upon by the most orthodox of surrealists. His general note is lyrical understanding of the street, trained observation of it, special feeling for patina, eye for revealing detail, over all of which is thrown a poetry which is not "the poetry of the street" or "the poetry of Paris," but the projection of Atget's person. The published reproductions are extremely disappointing. They and the typography and the binding make the book look like a pirated edition of some other publication.

America is really the natural home of photography if photography is thought of without operators (sic). Except that Edward Steichen has made up a book that happens to stand on the present shelf, the American problem is almost too sad to restate and too trite. Steichen is photography off its track in our own reiterated way of technical impressiveness and spiritual non existence. In paraphrase, his general note is money, understanding of advertising values, special feeling for parvenu elegance, slick technique, over all of which is thrown a hardness and superficiality that is the hardness and superficiality of America's latter day, and has nothing to do with any person. The publication of this work carries an inverted interest as reflection of the Chrysler period.

Without money, post war Germany experimented with photography heavily and thoroughly. There was an efficient destruction of romantic art photography in a flood of new things which has since lost its force. But the medium was extended and insisted upon, even though no German master appeared. The German photo renascence is a publishing venture with political undertones. Renger Patzsch's hundred photos make a book exciting to run through in a shop and disappointing to take home. His is a photo method, but turns out to be precisely the method that makes it said "painting is no longer necessary, the world can be photographed." It is a roundabout return to the middle period of photography.

Photo eye is a nervous and important book. Its editors call the world not only beautiful but exciting, cruel, and weird. In intention social and didactic, this is an anthology of the "new" photography; yet its editors knew where to look for their material, and print examples of the news photo, aerial photography, microphotography, astronomical photography, photomontage and the photogram, multiple-exposure and the negative print. The pictures are introduced by an essay which must be quoted (leaving its extraordinary English translation as it is in the book):

the importance to the history of mankind of development of instruments such as the camera, lies in obtaining increasingly complex results, while the handling of the apparatus becomes more and more simple. to maintain that "short cuts" by relieving him of all effort, lead but to man's greater dulness and laziness, is romanticism in the minor key, the field of mental struggle is but changed to another place. ... is it but necessary to master the implements of photography to become a good photographer? by no means: as in other fields of expression personality is required. the peculiar human valuation of form at the time is expressed in the photo just as it is in graphic art. ... it often occurs that photographs taken by the one will always appear uninteresting, though he be skilled in technique, while photoes by the other, who considers himself but an amateur and whose work is not technically perfect, yet invariabley are of forcible effect. ... some misinstructed people still raise the question whether ... to produce a photo full of expression and finished to the very corners can be an impelling inner necessity. what we mean is the question whether we are ... concerned here with art. commonplace men and "connoisseurs", both of whom generally are misforms of existence, still often meet in refusing to the most finished of photographs the quality mark of "art." either there is here but the semblance of a problem, since the definition of art is wholly time bound, arbitrary and ungreat, or human sight is totally deformed and susceptible only to one kind of beauty even opposite nature. if however we understand art as an end in itself, called forth by man and filled with "expression" good photographs are included.

Photographie is the French equivalent to Photo eye with the added intention of giving a history of photography. It is without tendency but has lost consistency by a de luxe process of reproduction. An essay on photographie vision du monde could be a good deal briefer than the one which prefaces this collection. But it is valuable, in its French intellectual way, a respectable statement of the functions and possibilities of photography. The reproductions do little to illustrate this essay.

Finally the photo document is directed into a volume, again in Germany. Antlitz der Zeit is more than a book of "type studies"; a case of the camera looking in the right direction among people. This is one of the futures of photography foretold by Atget. It is a photographic editing of society, a clinical process; even enough of a cultural necessity to make one wonder why other so called advanced countries of the world have not also been examined and recorded.


 


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