This Week In Photography Books – Walker Evans

by Jonathan Blaustein

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.

Classy.

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.

To Purchase “American Photographs” Visit Photo-Eye

Full Disclosure: Books are provided by Photo-Eye in exchange for links back for purchase.

Books are found in the bookstore and submissions are not accepted.

Jonathan Blaustein

There Are 28 Comments On This Article.

  1. Colin LM

    Finally a book I’m very familiar with, and one that is worthwhile. I didn’t expect a lot from your review but I didn’t expect so little effort on your part, as I don’t see evidence of even a smidgeon of work or thinking on your part.

    The following is a quote list of everything I could glean from your text about the photos.

    “…a sense of what things were like during the Great Depression”
    “Clinical, poetic, formal, intelligent, political photographs” (care to explain?)
    “…the details are so compelling”
    “Even photos you’ve seen before feel fresh and modern”
    “Both [sections] are stellar, and show Mr. Evans’ range.”
    “…a Greek-Style stone facade, that indubitably influenced the Becher style, decades later. Brilliant.” (indubitably?)

    Almost all of the reviews on Amazon have more to offer than the above.

    You’ve shown photos from the book, which is a good for readers who have never heard of Walker Evans or seen his photos, and you’ve recommended buying it. But I think a review of a classic and important photo book deserves more effort on your part; it seems like you’ve taken a lazy way in publicizing the book and getting a free copy.

    • Hi Colin LM,

      Thanks for the feedback, you polite rascal, you. Call me crazy, but wouldn’t it be easier to, you know, not read my column every week? You implied that you read it regularly. (“Finally a book I’m familiar with…”) Why not just stick to Amazon? If you hate it so much, why bother, dude?

      Best wishes,

      Jonathan Blaustein

      • Colin LM

        Jonathan, I rarely read your column, at least the big chunk of the column that’s so personal and verbose. This was an exception because I too was wondering how you would connect Walmart and Evans. Of course, I ignored the fact that you usually don’t connect the first 70% of your column to the book presented. Original approach? Gosh yes. Most writers consider the interests and attention of their readers, and thus don’t venture this far out in originality.

        My comment about Amazon of course was an exaggeration. But there are many good reviews of photo books to be found there.

        Cheers,
        dude

  2. Well, well , well. I quite enjoy the highly quirky nature of these reviews. I’ve disagreed with some posts in the past (DIVE DARK DREAM SLOW) but I must admit, I quite enjoy the strange paths Mr. Blaustein’s reviews take. There is a certain excitement a few paragraphs in when you think … where the hell is he going with this? Will it all turn out alright in the end? Will it, in fact, have anything to do with a book?

    Original.

  3. Just go back to not having comments for this column. The positive comments are only there hoping for a click-through to a website and the negative ones don’t elicit any meaningful reaction. We all know what the deal is by now. No sense going on about it anymore. Just look at the pictures, make up your own mind about the book, and move on. Gertrude Stein may have been wrong about Oakland, but the sentiment applies here.

        • — mw, by this logic there would be no discussion on anything. You have neatly eliminated both agreement and disagreement. But, qs you yourself have posted here, I assume you do not quite believe what you say.

          • No, that’s not the logic. My point was that this particular column doesn’t inspire any meaningful discussion, so shutting down the comments does no harm, and it serves to eliminate nearly all of the antagonism that comes from both sides of the screen (along with that wedding photographer who keeps posting empty praise under different names to get click-backs).

            Narcissists only find positive reinforcement in negative criticism anyway. It’s the old, “If I’m pissing people off, then I must be doing something right,” fallacy. There’s no point in having a discussion about it. It’s interesting as a case study, but it isn’t helpful. To anybody.

            Apologies for propagating a misinterpretation of the Stein quote.

            • Colin LM

              mw — I understand your point, but shutting down the comments is too extreme, and I’m sure Jonathan likes to get comments, especially negative ones. Nobody has to comment or read the comments. If they are there, they are there. If they’re not there, there’s no there there. So there. No apologies needed about the Stein quote. I thank you for it. I wouldn’t even have known about the quote you didn’t actually quote if you hadn’t inspired me to discover it (and the meaning of it).

  4. scott Rex Ely

    My God. What sort of mental energy does it take to digest this man’s thoughts. For Christ sakes, you of those with incredibly unrealistic expectations, lower them. This is the wind that makes the boat sail. No one is forcing you to stay on board. It is what it is.

    • Colin LM

      “What sort of mental energy does it take to digest this man’s thoughts.” — Not much.

      “you of those with incredibly unrealistic expectations, lower them.”
      – Hardly unrealisitic. I had very low expectations when I decided to read the column. Unfortunately it didn’t live up to them.

      “This is the wind that makes the boat sail.”
      – yes, but a slight whisper of a wind in the air. The boat must be quite light to sail under such an anemic breeze.

      “It is what it is.”
      True, and what a pity. I was merely encouraging Jonathan to put in a little more effort, a little more thinking into his writing. After all, by publishing a column, he’s asking us to devote a certain amount of time to read and consider his words (a significant amount considering his verbose style). His curt dismissal of my comments reinforce the impression that he is a lazy writer, one who might possibly be drowning in narcissism. My God. Christ’s sake. What would Evans think?

  5. scott Rex Ely

    The more I think about it, the more I love the irony of the comments about Amazon’s product, JB’s tack on Walmart and the notion of entitlement.

    Oh yeah, Walker Evans.
    I’ll have to vote for “Girl on Fulton St, New York, 1929. The Hungry Eye
    ISBN: 0-8109-3259-8
    for you emulsion- number lovers at heart.

    • Colin LM

      I reread the tack on Walmart. I retract my expression of disinterest in it. It was more interesting to read than I remembered — my memory having been clouded by my disappointment in the rest of the article concerning Evans.

    • Colin LM

      Where’s the irony?
      “entitlement”? — where’d that concept come into the discussion?

  6. scott Rex Ely

    The irony is JB talks about Walmart as the destructive device of the middle class, IE: Mom and Pop businesses and then someone comes on this blog and derides the short comings of JB’s review by comparing it to Amazon.
    As far as entitlements lets stick with that same comment meme, why does anyone expect something corporate, like what is edited and surrounded by the 800lb gorilla in the room, namely the concept of Amazon itself, from this very open and grass roots forum?
    Thanks for your reply.

  7. At first, I didn’t understand the need to close down commentary for the previous two posts. If someone as stolid as Walker Evans inspires this much “negative” commentary (particularly when most has nothing to do with… Walker Evans), I now understand why.

    This is one of the few major venues that still highlights and reviews photo books (to whatever extent) and still allows commentary, a vital part of that process. In a time of less transparency and greater secrecy, why anyone would want to shut that down is beyond me.

    • Rob and Jonathan should be asking themselves why this is the one column on the site that they closed down comments for.

      Just to be clear: I don’t want to shut down any meaningful discussion. I suggested leaving the comments closed, because (a) they were already closed down previously, and (b) this column doesn’t foster meaningful discussion. If it did, then we would all be discussing Walker Evans right now, instead of bickering about how Jonathan Blaustein is a lazy writer (or whatever). The problem, which Colin LM has pointed out, is that this column isn’t about the Walker Evans book. It’s never about the book. So the comments section in this case is largely pointless. Mr. Blaustein is attempting to do something different, and in the process he’s pretty much eliminated any discussion of photography or photography books (apart from ” Buy it”). So what’s left to discuss?

      There was an interview about the war photography exhibit in Texas not that long ago, and I was somewhat disturbed by the banter towards the end between Jonathan and the curator in which they fantasized about murdering Tutsi rebel Laurent Nkunda. Now I don’t know if they were somehow confusing Nkunda with Joseph Kony or maybe Bosco Ntaganda, but I tried to address it in the comments and was met with silence. That’s one example. Attempts to discuss the actual topics at hand either go nowhere, or they quickly degenerate into arguments.

      • And all I’m saying is that what while we may not agree with, let alone control, the initial review- we (collectively) can at least, have some part in redirecting the consequent commentary. Instead, we often get bogged down in criticizing JB’s writing right from the get go (as is the case above, yet again). I think by now everyone gets that everyone’s not happy with his style, and I certainly don’t think that anyone is above having their feet held to the fire. I’m glad to see the ad hominem attacks have for the most part ceased, but even the somewhat snarky writing critiques have reached a point of diminishing returns, getting as blatantly tired and obvious as what they’re railing against- no matter how legit that criticism may be. It’s like having the in laws over again for the same ol’ arguments where no one changes their tune.

        So what are the options? Change the channel; write your own reviews on your own blog; or continue to offer constructive criticism and commentary (glimpses of it to be found even here) that go beyond criticizing the perceived character flaws in JB’s personality. I think it’s important to let people know when you’re not satisfied with the product- and over the long haul, sometimes best done without the attitude…

        • Hi Gentlemen,

          Scott and Stan, thanks for bothering to present alternate viewpoints.

          What to do with this blasted comment section? That’s the big question, and I won’t claim to have sorted it out. Over the last three years, I have alternated between getting involved, responding through the articles themselves, and staying above the fray. No solution has yet solved the underlying problem: how to deal with the anonymous, personal attacks.

          Rob suggested that we experiment with closing this down entirely, as we were both tired of the negativity. The previous two columns were particularly charged, so we didn’t feel like dealing with the inevitable drama. This week, I suggested that we re-open them, as I’m a big believer in freedom of expression. (There’s your answer, Blake.) I was hoping to give it another chance?

          I have neither the time nor interest to consistently engage with nasty people who hide behind the opportunity to remain anonymous. A handful of folks can’t seem to accept that I don’t write exactly like everyone else. So what? Deal with it, or stop reading. There are countless other places in which to read straight book reviews. No one is forcing you.

          But the fact that mw, my most persistent anonymous critic, would suggest that we nuke the whole venture just because he and a few other people can’t control themselves? That is the height of irony. Genius, really. (RE: Laurent Nkunda, did you ever even see the picture to which Will and I were referring? Or did you just latch onto the first detail that allowed you to rant against our ignorance?)

          Let’s be clear. I’m not going to change who I am or how I write because you guys spew nasty things about me. It’s almost funny that you don’t seem to appreciate my willingness to be insulted. I take your vitriol so that you, and other people, can have a place to express opinions. (Your welcome.) And now, the folks who actually ruin it for everyone else are suggesting we close up shop. Job well done, fellas.

          Finally, I have to ask. Do you even know what narcissism means? You bandy the term about like you’re sleeping with the DSM-IV under your pillows, but I’m pretty sure you haven’t got a clue. Writing in the first person does not make me a narcissist. They lack the capacity for empathy and the ability to be self-critical. Sound familiar?

          We’ll see how Rob and I decide to proceed. Frankly, there’s a part of me that actually appreciates the fact that you’re talking about something (anything) other than how lame you think I am. Do you really have nothing to say about Walmart’s impact on the American Middle Class in 2013? Or the genius of Walker Evans? Or the relevance of Lincoln Kirstein’s quote? Or the fact that “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” was a great and underrated movie? (“You killed Ted, you medieval dickweed.”)

          Best wishes,
          Jonathan Blaustein

          • Dear Jonathan

            As you know you have a way of writing that does not go over well with some people. Your personal lead-ins are somewhat long and your comments on the actual book are comparably brief. But that’s actually not very different from a lot of columns one can read in newspapers or magazines. Go to any newspaper website that has a column by someone who’s rather opinionated and look at the comments section. Doesn’t look any better than here.

            So this really begs the question, what use is there for a comments section? What’s the best case? Someone writing “well done!”? The most people will do nowadays to express their appreciation is hit a “like” button.
            So what’s the next best thing? Meaningful discussion of the book? Sure, but that’s not realistic. If anyone’s going to take the time to write their own thorough review of the book, they’ll most likely want to put it up on their on blog.
            So basically the only people who will decide to comment are those who have such a strong negative emotional reaction to your writing that they feel they HAVE to comment.

            So all in all I really think there’s little point in keeping the comments open for the book reviews (but keep it open for interviews and other articles). If you have a take-it-or-leave-it approach in your writing then I don’t see anything wrong with following through with this thought in the comments section. And it has nothing to do with freedom of expression. Freedom of expression means that everyone’s free to express their opinion but it doesn’t mean that you have to offer everyone a platform to do so. I wouldn’t invite people to my house to say how much they dislike me. That’s not censorship. People are free to reblog your reviews and comment on them on their own blogs. If you leave the comments section open you have to accept that people are going to spew nasty things, but the question is why should you?

            PS: It’s often said that people are inpolite on the internet because they can hide behind anonymity but I think that’s not true for the most part. If you look at how people talk in a heated discussion in real life they’re often not much more polite. Sure, the insults might have more subtlety but they’re still there. As for people staying anonymous on the internet, I think that’s just common sense. I never use my real name when I write something on the internet whether it’s positive or negative. Why? Frankly, because I don’t want there to be a record of everything I say that’s there for eternity for all the world to see. I don’t have my words recorded in real life so why would I do that on the internet? I wouldn’t want a woman I meet for a first date to know everything I like and don’t like and what pages I frequent on the internet.
            Besides, even if people use their real name they’re still strangers to you.

            • scott Rex Ely

              David, I’m very mindful of the record of my own words and it’s like a pinch from my wife to not bullshit without owning my words by using my real name. The problem is once you go negative, IMHO, with an anonymous handle the weight of your opinion goes to what Gary Larson so aptly illustrated with his cartoon “What dogs really hear”. Blah, blah, blah Ginger. . .

              • Hi Guys,
                David makes some good points. I’m glad to see that this hasn’t devolved any further. I think most people would agree that I don’t derive any benefit from having people like mw smear shit at the end of my articles, which happens more regularly than I’d like. But there are others who would lose out if we shut the comments on the book reviews; regular readers who like to chime in with a thought here or there. Like scott. I’ve tried to “take one for the team” for a while now, and I think it’s fair for me to be a little weary of it. So we’ll see what happens.

                jb

                • blake andrews

                  Thanks for the feedback Jonathan. I was mostly curious because I’ve dealt with anonymous trolls myself and it’s always a dilemma how to address them. To ignore, or reply, ban, or what to do. I have an idea, probably just a fantasy, that by giving trolls room to express themselves anonymously I can draw them out, maybe into some form of comment therapy, and even discover their identity. But it usually doesn’t get that far. Anyway I think closing comments completely is probably an overreaction, so I’m glad to see they are re-opened.

  8. blake andrews

    I too noticed that the comments were closed in recent weeks. I am curious to hear (from Jonathan or Rob?) what motivated that action, and also why they have now been re-opened.

  9. scott Rex Ely

    Change nothing.
    Until this website is involuntarily forced down someone’s throat people have the option to participate or not.
    Removing the option to participate, even if it’s to spew spam like drivel of the most negative kind out of one’s lower 40 from spineless anonymous nare-do wells, allows the nare-do wells to run the ship.
    This column is refreshing for its unconventionality and that is why I got into and still enjoy the offerings of this industry. Thanks to Rob for supporting JB and thanks to JB for being reasonable in response to unreasonable individuals.