Tag Archives: Graphic Elements

‘American Photographs’ by Walker Evans

Like the work of most great artists, the best of Walker Evans’ pictures are marvels of contradiction. Or, rather, they acquire their power through the contradictions they deftly reconcile. One especially striking example: a photograph from 1930 (slide 11 in this gallery) comprised of elements so incongruous that, taken together, they really should not bear scrutiny for more than a few moments before the viewer, shrugging indifferently, moves on.

But through Evans’ uncanny visual alchemy, that particular photograph’s disparate graphic elements—family photos; a half-hidden American flag; dried flowers; a truly hideous plant growing with almost unseemly vitality from a battered wooden bucket—appear not only to belong together, but to need one another in order to make sense.



As seemingly chaotic and even unappealing as the image might feel at first glance, those wildly variant aspects of the photo—the flag, the plant, the faces—somehow cohere into something far more than the sum of their parts. Despite its initially jarring message, “Interior Detail of Portuguese House” does not, in fact, spurn scrutiny—it commands, and rewards, scrutiny. And what’s more amazing is that, after a time, the photograph appears to be gazing back. It is the viewer, and not the picture, that is the subject of an unblinking inquiry—and it’s unsettling.

But if Evans’ pictures are evidence of a rare facility for both creating and resolving contradictions, his career might be seen as his masterpiece. A fierce, determined artist, Walker Evans was for decades on staff at Time Inc.—a salaried editor at, of all places, Fortune magazine from the 1940s until the mid-1960s. That the man behind one of the seminal photographic efforts of the 20th century—the 1938 masterwork, American Photographs—went to the office each day, like any other nine-to-fiver, might astonish those photography buffs who have always, understandably, imagined Evans as nothing if not an irresistible creative force.

And yet, here again, Evans’ intrinsic contradictions—managed as Rodin might handle a lump of clay, or Koufax a curveball—are ultimately resolved in the photographs, singly and collectively, that he produced. He is both iconoclast and working stiff; company man and virtuoso.

This year marks the 75th anniversary edition of American Photographs, reissued by the Museum of Modern Art in an edition that recaptures, for the first time since its original release, what might be called the book’s radical purity. (The book itself, as a physical object, is a pleasure to hold; the duotone plates are gorgeous and crisp, and the size of this edition—an at-once solid and easily handled 7.75″ x 8.75″ hardcover—does justice to the serious, unfussy, thrilling nature of the work inside.)

As in the first edition, Evans’ pictures in the MoMa release appear only on the right-hand side as one turns each page, the utterly blank page on the left—without even a caption to distract the eye—adjuring one to look, to really look, at each picture, one after the other. And as the pages (slowly, slowly) turn, Evans’ accomplishment grows more evident, more impressive, more engaging.

The standard line on Evans is that no one—with a camera or a paintbrush—had ever captured America in quite the clear-eyed, unsentimental, honest  way that he did. But that patently true declaration still fails to encompass the scale and the sustained excellence of his achievement. In American Photographs, in images made during the Great Depression in places as divergent as Pennsylvania, Alabama, New York City and Havana, Cuba, Evans did not hold a mirror up to his country and his time: no mirror ever made, after all, could so clearly reflect what he saw, and what he wanted others to see.

Instead, each and every one of Evans’ pictures provides a window—or an unadorned window frame—from which even the glass has been removed, and through which we witness a scene of such clarity and immediacy that our own contemporary surroundings, if only for a moment, seem somehow less freighted with history. Less grounded. Less real.

The details of a house in Maine (slide 17)—the surprisingly jaunty, seemingly tilted windows; the elegant shapes, graceful patterns and, above all, the textures that give the structure its personality—are not merely the handiwork of people who obviously cared about their hard work; the details of the house are reminders of, and tributes to, the enduring value of hard work and the attention to craft.

The stance, the clothing and the unreadable expression on the face of a lean, dapper citizen of Havana in 1932 (slide 9) are not merely separate elements of a snapshot: like the details of a portrait by an Old Master, they combine to suggest a time, a place and an attitude (defiant, dignified) that have survived the passing decades intact—even if, by now, the man himself must be long dead.

These pictures, and the other pictures in American Photographs, are intensely daring precisely because the man who made them worked so hard to hide—to efface—the effort that went into creating them. Each image stands on its own, while at the same time each picture references the photograph that comes before, and the photograph that follows. It is a straightforward book that stirs complex emotions. It is a treasure.

‘Walker Evans: American Photographs (Seventy-Fifth Anniversary Edition)’ is available through the Museum of Modern Art.

Ben Cosgrove is the editor of LIFE.com.

Review: Inger Lise Rasmussen, Brilliant City

Inger Lise Rasmussen, Brilliant City

Inger Lise Rasmussen, Brilliant City

When I met Inger Lise Rasmussen at the Fotofest Paris portfolio review last November, one of the first things she said to me was “I’m not a photographer, I’m a print-maker.” This distinction is worth keeping in mind when looking at her work. Going through her portfolio at the time, it was clear to me that each of her prints should be considered as objects rather than just as images. She makes her prints using a photo-gravure process and her background as a graphic artist comes through clearly in her compositions of multiple images on a single sheet of the rich, textured papers which she uses. I found the results to be quietly beautiful and very different to the other work which I reviewed at the time.

Given the importance of the print-making process to Rasmussen, I was curious how her work would translate into book form, particularly into the form of a fairly straightforward exhibition catalogue such as this one. Although I think she is being a little hard on her herself (and more than a little tongue-in-cheek) when she says “I’m not a photographer,” I do think that her pictures are more interesting as graphic elements with a very particular atmosphere and texture than as photographic images.

In 2007 and 2008 Rasmussen made two trips to China to study the country’s exploding urban growth in the cities of Beijing, Xian, Wuhan, Chongqing and Shanghai. The resulting collection, Brilliant City, is not broken down into separate sections for each city, but structured as a series of small chapters on different characteristic aspects of urban China. These fragments go from the ‘big picture’ of the cities’ structures (old hutong neighbourhoods being torn down, cityscapes of new neighbourhoods of huge residential blocks) to the more detailed and human (a group of grasshopper collectors, a metal worker, a percussionist). Unfortunately, I found that the book suffered a bit from this fragmented structure: it felt like the series of vignettes that it contains didn’t quite add up to a coherent or complex impression of the China’s emerging mega-cities. Although the book is well printed, having seen Rasmussen’s prints, I don’t think the book quite manages to replicate the richness of the gravure tones and texture of her prints.

Brilliant City is at it’s best when the pages of the book echo the graphic compositions of Rasmussen’s prints. Her gravure technique is also better suited to the more intimate images (grasshopper collectors, a lone percussionist) than the sprawling cityscapes. In a chapter entitled ‘Lost in Singing’, an old woman singing fades gradually out of focus across a series of three images punctuated by a fourth image of an ancient stone, a sequence which manages to be both poetic and, frankly, strange.

What I enjoyed most about Brilliant City was seeing one of the hottest subjects in contemporary photography (urban growth in China) treated in a very different way from the many large-format formal studies that have appeared in recent years. Although Rasmussen uses old, some might even say antiquated, techniques this gives her work a more lyrical sensibility without misleading the viewer into thinking that these are images of the past. There is still a strong sense of this being China now. Although some of the subjects felt a little too obvious (the fading lanterns or the building sites), the book doesn’t fall into the trap of romanticising the past and criticising it’s modern replacement. It feels more like a slightly melancholy acceptance of the fact that China is undergoing a radical transformation, for better or for worse.

Inger Lise Rasmussen, Brilliant City. Aarhus Kunstbygning (Soft cover, 63 pages, black-and-white and colour plates, 2009).

Rating: Worth a look


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