Walker Evans: Starting from Scratch

Princeton Univ. Oct. 2020. 208p. ISBN 9780691195872. $35. PHOTOG
Alpers’s (The Art of Describing) comprehensive study explores American photographer Walker Evans (1903–75) and is the first comprehensive analysis of a photographer by this scholar best known for specializing in 17th-century Dutch painting. Weaving a discussion of photography’s essential characteristics through her text, Alpers shows how Evans’s approach differed both from that of other photographers and from conventional assumptions about photography. The title investigates photographers whose work influenced Evans (significantly, Eugène Atget) but is particularly valuable for its examination of Evans’s literary influences. The author makes a compelling argument for the impact of 19th-century novelist Gustave Flaubert’s style of realism and naturalism on the young Evans. With 170 black-and-white and color plates, the book begins with a gallery of Evans’s photos. This is followed by seven chapters of critical commentary on major phases of his career (in particular, the Cuba photos, travels through the American South, and the New York City subway portraits). Quotes from Evans’s own writing and lectures, together with the words of curators who worked with Evans (John Szarkowski, Lincoln Kirstein) and references to artist and writer contemporaries (e.g,. Edmund Wilson, Elizabeth Bishop) enrich the analysis.
VERDICT Intriguing interpretations of Evans’s photos and work process, for both specialists and general readers.
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