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Walker Evans at 101

A Review of Walker Evans: Many Are Called. Jeff L. Rosenheim, ed. U Yale Press, 2004, 89 plates, 208 pp.

"Stare. It is the way to educate your eye, and more. Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long." — Walker Evans, c. 1960, from the afterword.

Thank God for Jeff L. Rosenheim, associate curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Due to his prodigious efforts, no less than five volumes of Walker Evans' best work — much of it neglected, or previously unpublished — have been published under Rosenheim's editorship in a little over a decade. The most notable of these have been: A thorough omnibus of Evans's photographs, with essays by current critics and scholars published by the Metropolitan; a collection of Evans' writings, translations and correspondence, and; a collection of Evans' Polaroid photographs, which he produced in the early 1970s, shortly before his death in 1975.

Many Are Called is the first book Rosenheim edited that is a reissue of a previously released book. Originally released in 1966, this collection of 89 photographs taken by Evans in New York City's subways between 1938 and 1941 marks the return of this seminal work in its entirety after many decades out of print.

Along with James Agee's original introduction is a newly written preface by Luc Sante, which basically says in more updated and professorial language what Agee said. Rosenheim penned an afterword for this new edition, which relates the history of this work's genesis and its quarter-century dormancy before its first publication in 1966.

New plates have been engraved from scans made from Walker Evans' original negatives and are attractively printed in duotone. Although the printing is considerably better in tonality than the original, halftone screening and slight pixilization resultant from digital scanning is evident to the careful eye.

Many readers will already be familiar with many of the plates herein, published in previous collections such as the one cited above and also prominently featured in Gilles Mora's Walker Evans: The Hungry Eye.

Upon first seeing these photographs, I was struck by how these were a departure from Evans' earlier work, most notably his American Photographs. Because of its surreptitious nature (Evans kept a Contax folding camera hidden in his overcoat), the look of his subway portraits is stripped down to its bare elements: Slightly out of focus, grainy because it was in 35mm rather than large format, and somewhat off-kilter framing (Evans never looked through a viewfinder, using a cable release hidden up his sleeve to trip the shutter). Many subway riders have been framed in a subtle halo of light, resulting from the naked incandescent bulbs in train stations refracting through the camera's lens, accidentally giving his subjects an angelic aura.

Yet, because of this anonymous shooting method, Evans was able to capture his subjects totally unawares. To Evans, this represented portraiture in its purest, unadulterated and totally ingenuous state. Because of their anonymity, his subjects have been unmasked, and are simply in transit between work and home, on their way to the movies, reading the paper in their hands (always a tabloid, never a gatefold — fitting, for the tabloid was invented to accommodate the confines of the packed subway car). Some were caught staring up. (At toothpaste ads? At a pretty girl's lithe arm hanging from an overhead strap? Who knows?)

My favorite print is probably the most famous, of a comely Jewish girl, magazine in hand, her head topped by a hat's wide, round, brim, her shoulders elegantly wrapped in a voluminous fur.

Others, though, are more comical, iconic or ironic: Plate 5 shows an older gentleman, grimacing, his eye's closed; a pair of old ladies gab in profile (plate 27); a blue collar guy gets caught up, enthusiastically reading his Daily Mirror (31); a prim and properly dressed elderly woman finds something on the train quite un-prim and improper to laugh out loud at (34); a man yawns, his mouth wide open (44); a pin-up girl on the Chesterfield cigarette placard slyly peers over a sailor's shoulder, betraying him as more lonely than alone (83); an accordion player ambles between the rows of passengers, singing his song, his eyes closed and oblivious to the passengers' aloofness (89).

In 2002, the great landscape photographer Ansel Adams had his birthday celebrated from beyond his grave by all sorts of his hangers-on, the usual crowds from the Sierra Club, the Yosemite workshops and PBS. It was a fitting tribute, a larger-than-life gushing forth of accolades and genuflection that would have pleased the professional publicity seeking cameraman.

The next year, however, marked the centenary of another great photographer, Walker Evans. Yet, there was little fanfare. This was also quite fitting, in its own way. Nonetheless, this quiet and fastidious man has probably had an influence greater than any other on the photography of the past 50 years.

In contrast to the bigger-than-a-breadbox boxed edition of Ansel Adams at 100, there was no Walker Evans at 100 released in 2003. However, this belated book is a most fitting volume to the greatest photographic collector of prosaic American ephemera. In 89 plates, Evans created a revolution in documentary photography. Seeking not to convince, interpret, preach or incite. Rather, he achieves that rarest and most precious of photographic aspirations: He permits the world to simply see the world as he has seen it through his own eyes.

There's nothing necessarily novel about that in itself. Yet, what makes this work so singular and powerful is that we not only see through Evans' eyes, we like what we see, are moved by it and what we've seen is indelibly imprinted within our minds' eyes.

Anybody can make such miracles of nature as Monument Valley, the Grand Tetons or Half-dome at Yosemite beautiful. Walker Evans, though, took the ordinary and common, and raised it to something unique and profound through his taste, imagination and artistic passion.

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