Have you ever been to Walmart? It’s a fair question. If you live in a major American city, or elsewhere in the world, you might not have had the experience. (Spoiler alert: you’re not missing much.)
I avoid Walmart whenever possible. Sometimes, though, I have no choice. Here in the sticks, if you need something specific, immediately, you might have to succumb to the unctuous undertow. I try to find an alternative if I can, because I’m so tired of being “Walmarted.” Yes, my wife and I use the noun as a verb.
To be “Walmarted” means to go into the store looking for a particular, inexpensive item which, invariably, they’re out of. Then, as you try to navigate the chunky aisles, in which things are sometimes moved around to confuse, you end up grabbing other goods; stuffing your basket with unnecessary trinkets made in China. Finally, you find yourself in a long, slow queue, wasting time. After five minutes of waiting, you realize you aren’t actually buying the thing you came in for. Fed up, you put down your basket, and walk out of the store.
If I were asked, by some time-traveling Americans from the future, to codify the signs of our collective decline, Walmart would be a pretty good place to start. It has its defenders, who focus on its ability to deliver low-cost goods, but the Arkansas-based mega-conglomerate has many sins for which to repent. Chief among them, the corporation has done much to hollow out America’s once-thriving Middle-Class. (Look here, and let me distract you with super-cheap garbage that will break in a few weeks time, while I run your Mom-and-Pop establishments out of business.)
Yes, Walmart would be my answer, if queried by these imaginary Americans from the future. What if, however, they asked me to show them what America looked like in the past? Perhaps they were curious about depictions of the United States the last time we were mired in a period of deep stagnation?
“You want a sense of what things were like during the Great Depression, future people? That’s easy,” I’d say. “No worries. Here’s a copy of the 75th Anniversary edition of ‘American Photographs,’ by Walker Evans, recently re-issued by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. “Have a seat, take a look,” I’d say. “By the way, do you guys have flying cars yet? Because that would be righteous, future dudes.”
This book needs no actual introduction, so I fabricated one, as I’m wont to do. It’s just that good. Clinical, poetic, formal, intelligent, political photographs line up for your perusal. All you have to do is turn the page, and stare.
While I rarely mention price, this book is not expensive, so it belongs in any good collection. (Hint, hint. Buy it.) It begs repeated viewing, as the details are so compelling. Even photos you’ve seen before feel fresh and modern, like the “Alabama Cotton Tenant Farmer Wife,” from 1936. Another, “Interior Detail, West Virginia Coal Miner’s House,” from 1935, is another I’d seen before. This time, though, the humor of the situation jumped out at me. Who on Earth would use those cheesy adverts to decorate a living room? This guy, apparently.
Structurally, the book is broken down into two sections. The first deals with people and signage, predominantly, and the latter focuses on American Architecture. Both are stellar, and show Mr. Evans’ range. There is a sequence of structures in Part 2, a few ramshackle churches, interspersed with a Greek-Style stone facade, that indubitably influenced the Becher style, decades later. Brilliant.
Finally, I must give a shout out to the incredibly-well-written and somehow timely essay by Lincoln Kirstein, which follows the plates. (From the original publication in 1938.) It’s the rare bit of intellectual prose that holds one’s attention with its severe intelligence, and I found myself shocked by the contemporary relevance. (“A batch of younger photographers, usually their dark-room assistants, is always just around the corner, ready to do the new jobs for less cash. Just as with automobiles, the style-turnover is rapid and the old dogs can’t seem to learn new tricks.”)
Two closing statements, by the curator Sarah Hermanson Meister, give a clue as to how much work goes into re-producing a book like this. She also offers us an inside look at how seriously those MoMA folks take their jobs. Obsession and attention to detail are a given, I suppose.
Those of you who pay attention might just have realized that I foreshadowed this review in last week’s column. I, too, take my work seriously, even if that only means keeping it fresh from time to time. This book, by a master, as promised, is one to own. No questions asked.
Bottom Line: A re-issued masterpiece. Buy it.
Full Disclosure: Books are provided by Photo-Eye in exchange for links back for purchase.
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