Of great American photographers of the approximate first half of the twentieth century – a distinguished group that includes Alfred Stieglitz, Lewis Hine, Dorothea Lange, Paul Strand, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Imogen Cunningham, Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Berenice Abbott among others – it is Walker Evans (1903–75), with his characteristically spare, unadorned, deceptively simple and austerely beautiful photographs (rural churches, abandoned barns, scrapped automobiles, derelict wagons, signs, billboards and posters, barbershops, storefronts, “anonymous” persons), who has come to embody the quintessential American minimalism we admire in the prose of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (1919) and the early Ernest Hemingway of In Our Time (1924), the poetry of William Carlos Williams and the more vernacular music of Charles Ives, and the uncluttered dreamlike realism of Edward Hopper’s paintings.
Williams’s famous mantra “No ideas, but in things” (Paterson, 1946) is a helpful distillation of Evans’s aesthetic of documentary lyricism: not abstract ideas, indeed not ideas at all, but objects should be the focus of attention, sometimes decontextualized in the interests of visual purity; where given a context, as in the beautifully understated portraiture in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), Evans’s celebrated collaboration with James Agee, in which three sharecropper families are represented in formal poses outside their shingle-board houses in Depression-era Alabama, this context is itself minimal, straightforward. The aesthetic ideal is a kind of folk documentation that establishes the “authenticity of the past” by a selection of (symbolic) images linking the viewer to a violent history recollected in tranquillity: Confederate battlefield monuments, plantation houses in ruins, devastated graveyards...
Starting from scratch 257pp.
Princeton University Press.