Tag Archives: Marvels

‘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.

MOMA

Cover

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.

Vivian Maier @ PHOTOFUSION GALLERY

Those of you who missed out on the highly-acclaimed and much-anticipated Vivian Maier show at the German Gymnasium as part of the London Street Photography Festival, fear not, for it is now travelling to the wonderful Photofusion Gallery in Brixton.

From 29 July – 16 September, Photofusion will bring together 48 black and white and colour prints from the Chicago-based nanny who in her spare time wandered the streets with her Rolleiflex, obsessively taking snapshots of life as it unfolded around her. The exhibition includes spontaneous street scenes, street portraiture and more abstract compositions reminiscent of some of the greatest photographers working in the genre, to whom her work is often compared. Through her unique style of candid street photography, Vivian Maier incidentally recorded some of the most interesting marvels and peculiarities of urban America in the latter half of the last century.
















All images courtesy of John Maloof ©Maloof Collection Ltd

Prior to the exhibition officially opening, it seems like a perfect opportunity to revisit this interview with Aaron Schuman and John Maloof, originally published in #11 of 1000 Words.

AS: There’s been quite a bit of coverage of Vivian Maier’s own mysterious biography, as well as of the incredible story of how you found, acquired and are in the process of archiving her work, and the discovery of this collection. But for the purposes of this interview, I’d like to focus on the photographs themselves. Firstly, why do you think Maier’s work is particularly interesting and important?

JM: I must say that, at first, I didn’t know that her work was as good as I now understand it to be. When I found Vivian’s archive, I was not a photographer, so what caught my eye were the more nostalgic images of Chicago and New York in the 1950s and 60s. Over time, I began to realise that the work was better than I’d first thought. What I now find to be so interesting and important is the fact that she was not formally trained, and yet she was ahead of her time; purely by coincidence, she was taking photographs similar to those of Diane Arbus, but she was doing so a decade earlier than Arbus.

AS: I understand that you initially bought her negatives hoping that they might serve historical purposes, but they’ve since been positioned within an “Art”, or at least, “Art Photography”, context – how did that happen? Do you think Maier was interested in photography – and understood her own photography – as “Art”?

JM: As I mentioned earlier, I originally purchased her work because it contained images of Chicago in the mid-twentieth century, and at the time I was researching and co-authoring a book about my local Chicago neighbourhood. But I do think that she was photographing as a form of art, and that she understood photography well. In fact, when she died she left behind many books by photographers, which means that she must have appreciated the work of others.

AS: Judging by what you’ve seen so far, how would you generally describe Maier as a photographer?

JM: I would describe her as one of those photographers that simply follows their own curiosities, wherever they lead. She didn’t have assignments or a specific agenda to promote; she was doing this for herself. That is the most interesting aspect about her intentions as a photographer.

AS: In the process of archiving her work, have you noticed any particular themes developing?

JM: The themes within her work changed over time. In the first few years, she was still very much an amateur, taking controlled photographs – mostly landscapes and portraits – with a Kodak Brownie box camera. She then got into street photography, primarily honing in on women, children, and the poor. After that, in the mid-1970s, she switched to colour and became more abstract, taking pictures of garbage on the curbside, racial and political graffiti, and so on.

AS: In the past, you’ve speculated that Maier may have studied under Lisette Model in the early-1950s, and might have been in touch with – or at least aware of – a number of other prominent photographers working at that time. Is there any hard evidence to support a direct connection?

JM: I did speculate that there was the possibility of a connection to Lisette Model, however it was clearly a speculation based on coincidences. I recently received the class roster of Model’s class from the New School of Social Research, and unfortunately Vivian wasn’t on there. So I can’t say for sure who her influences were. The only evidence of any direct influence on Maier is from Jeanne Bertrand, a portrait photographer whom Vivian boarded with in her early years. There’s no hard evidence to support any other direct connections, but within her work there’s definitely a sense that she was aware of the photographers who were becoming known in her time, such as those from the Photo League and the Institute of Design in Chicago.

AS: I understand that there is another collector, Jeff Goldstein, who possesses quite a bit of Maier’s work as well – in particular, her earlier work. What is your relationship with him, and how do your collections differ?

JM: Just to clarify things, Vivian started taking pictures in 1949/1950, and it is mostly amateur quality work at that time. The work in my collection is from 1949-1999. To date, it is largely un-scanned, so only a small portion of it has been posted on the website. We’re scanning it in chronological order, so that’s why there are only images from the 1950s and 60s up on the website; it will take some time to get to the later years, but so far we’ve found several hundred undeveloped colour rolls, and around thirty-thousand color slides that have already been developed. I’m not exactly sure how much Jeff has, or what years his collection represents. But from what I know, his collection is weighted more in the early work, and the later work (late-60s – early-70s). He purchased this collection somewhat recently, in the summer of last year. We have a friendly relationship, we’ve opened up our archives to one another for research purposes, and have since been talking about working on this immense archival project quite a bit.

AS: I’ve often seen Maier described as “an equal of” or “as good as” some of most celebrated photographers of her time – Robert Frank, Helen Levitt, Harry Callahan, Lisette Model, Diane Arbus, William Klein, Roy DeCarava, and so on. But I worry that her work might only be seen, understood, and celebrated through the prism of our contemporary version of photo-history, rather than recognised for itself in its own right. Each of the photographers mentioned above have a distinct aesthetic and very personal approach to photography – in your opinion, what do you think is particularly unique or special about Maier’s work?

JM: This is a very loaded question, and I can’t fully answer it until we’ve documented and explored more of her archive. At this point, judging from what’s been uncovered so far, I believe that she produced work that is equal to some of the well-known masters. Her interest in women (especially women with glamorous fashions), children, and the less fortunate have been common threads within the images that we’ve archived so far. She also has a well-rounded understanding of the formal elements of photography, as can be seen in the images on the website. But it will take more time to figure out her unique “fit” with the other masters of her time – she definitely had a personal style, which we expect to see more of as we move forward.

Vivian Maier @ PHOTOFUSION GALLERY

Those of you who missed out on the highly-acclaimed and much-anticipated Vivian Maier show at the German Gymnasium as part of the London Street Photography Festival, fear not, for it is now travelling to the wonderful Photofusion Gallery in Brixton.

From 29 July – 16 September, Photofusion will bring together 48 black and white and colour prints from the Chicago-based nanny who in her spare time wandered the streets with her Rolleiflex, obsessively taking snapshots of life as it unfolded around her. The exhibition includes spontaneous street scenes, street portraiture and more abstract compositions reminiscent of some of the greatest photographers working in the genre. Through her unique style of candid street photography and an aesthetic that is by turns raw and unflinching yet always brimming with a dark formal beauty, Vivian Maier incidentally recorded some of the most interesting marvels and peculiarities of urban America in the latter half of the twentieth century.
















All images courtesy of John Maloof ©Maloof Collection Ltd

Prior to the exhibition officially opening, it seems like a perfect opportunity to revisit this interview with Aaron Schuman and John Maloof, originally published in #11 of 1000 Words.

AS: There’s been quite a bit of coverage of Vivian Maier’s own mysterious biography, as well as of the incredible story of how you found, acquired and are in the process of archiving her work, and the discovery of this collection. But for the purposes of this interview, I’d like to focus on the photographs themselves. Firstly, why do you think Maier’s work is particularly interesting and important?

JM: I must say that, at first, I didn’t know that her work was as good as I now understand it to be. When I found Vivian’s archive, I was not a photographer, so what caught my eye were the more nostalgic images of Chicago and New York in the 1950s and 60s. Over time, I began to realise that the work was better than I’d first thought. What I now find to be so interesting and important is the fact that she was not formally trained, and yet she was ahead of her time; purely by coincidence, she was taking photographs similar to those of Diane Arbus, but she was doing so a decade earlier than Arbus.

AS: I understand that you initially bought her negatives hoping that they might serve historical purposes, but they’ve since been positioned within an “Art”, or at least, “Art Photography”, context – how did that happen? Do you think Maier was interested in photography – and understood her own photography – as “Art”?

JM: As I mentioned earlier, I originally purchased her work because it contained images of Chicago in the mid-twentieth century, and at the time I was researching and co-authoring a book about my local Chicago neighbourhood. But I do think that she was photographing as a form of art, and that she understood photography well. In fact, when she died she left behind many books by photographers, which means that she must have appreciated the work of others.

AS: Judging by what you’ve seen so far, how would you generally describe Maier as a photographer?

JM: I would describe her as one of those photographers that simply follows their own curiosities, wherever they lead. She didn’t have assignments or a specific agenda to promote; she was doing this for herself. That is the most interesting aspect about her intentions as a photographer.

AS: In the process of archiving her work, have you noticed any particular themes developing?

JM: The themes within her work changed over time. In the first few years, she was still very much an amateur, taking controlled photographs – mostly landscapes and portraits – with a Kodak Brownie box camera. She then got into street photography, primarily honing in on women, children, and the poor. After that, in the mid-1970s, she switched to colour and became more abstract, taking pictures of garbage on the curbside, racial and political graffiti, and so on.

AS: In the past, you’ve speculated that Maier may have studied under Lisette Model in the early-1950s, and might have been in touch with – or at least aware of – a number of other prominent photographers working at that time. Is there any hard evidence to support a direct connection?

JM: I did speculate that there was the possibility of a connection to Lisette Model, however it was clearly a speculation based on coincidences. I recently received the class roster of Model’s class from the New School of Social Research, and unfortunately Vivian wasn’t on there. So I can’t say for sure who her influences were. The only evidence of any direct influence on Maier is from Jeanne Bertrand, a portrait photographer whom Vivian boarded with in her early years. There’s no hard evidence to support any other direct connections, but within her work there’s definitely a sense that she was aware of the photographers who were becoming known in her time, such as those from the Photo League and the Institute of Design in Chicago.

AS: I understand that there is another collector, Jeff Goldstein, who possesses quite a bit of Maier’s work as well – in particular, her earlier work. What is your relationship with him, and how do your collections differ?

JM: Just to clarify things, Vivian started taking pictures in 1949/1950, and it is mostly amateur quality work at that time. The work in my collection is from 1949-1999. To date, it is largely un-scanned, so only a small portion of it has been posted on the website. We’re scanning it in chronological order, so that’s why there are only images from the 1950s and 60s up on the website; it will take some time to get to the later years, but so far we’ve found several hundred undeveloped colour rolls, and around thirty-thousand color slides that have already been developed. I’m not exactly sure how much Jeff has, or what years his collection represents. But from what I know, his collection is weighted more in the early work, and the later work (late-60s – early-70s). He purchased this collection somewhat recently, in the summer of last year. We have a friendly relationship, we’ve opened up our archives to one another for research purposes, and have since been talking about working on this immense archival project quite a bit.

AS: I’ve often seen Maier described as “an equal of” or “as good as” some of most celebrated photographers of her time – Robert Frank, Helen Levitt, Harry Callahan, Lisette Model, Diane Arbus, William Klein, Roy DeCarava, and so on. But I worry that her work might only be seen, understood, and celebrated through the prism of our contemporary version of photo-history, rather than recognised for itself in its own right. Each of the photographers mentioned above have a distinct aesthetic and very personal approach to photography – in your opinion, what do you think is particularly unique or special about Maier’s work?

JM: This is a very loaded question, and I can’t fully answer it until we’ve documented and explored more of her archive. At this point, judging from what’s been uncovered so far, I believe that she produced work that is equal to some of the well-known masters. Her interest in women (especially women with glamorous fashions), children, and the less fortunate have been common threads within the images that we’ve archived so far. She also has a well-rounded understanding of the formal elements of photography, as can be seen in the images on the website. But it will take more time to figure out her unique “fit” with the other masters of her time – she definitely had a personal style, which we expect to see more of as we move forward.

For more information on the exhibition please visit www.photofusion.org/gallery/photography/exhibitions/future/default.htm