My appreciation of Walker Evans only came recently in my photographic career. I bought my first book of Evans' photographs from a used bookstore in Sebastopol while still in high school, though the images didn't inspire me. That's no longer the case.
Recently I've come to appreciate Evans' images in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and the recently discovered and printed Cotton Tenets: Three Families, but I've found the book Walker Evans: Signs the most exciting collection of Evans' photographs so far.
Signs collects Evans images of "billboards and movie posters, newspaper headlines and theater marquees", and includes images taken in America and Cuba. But Signs isn't just about Evans' images, there's also the accompanying essay by Andrei Codrescu that explores the context of Evans' photographs along with Evans' motivations.
Codrescu notes that Evans was in Paris during 1926 and 1927 when modernism was flourishing (see Earnest Hemingway's A Moveable Feast for more on Paris at that time), which forever shaped his vision and created a tension between the still and moving image.
"It was also a time," as Codrescu observes, "of popular writing, of huge advertisements, of lettering that invaded every nook and cranny and even wrote the skyline. America wrote big, with bold new alphabets, in lightbulbs, in neon, in smoke. One could follow the text of twentieth-century America from coast to coast and read it either as a single phrase or as small, interlinked sections of an epic poem."
Most of the images in Signs, as we would expect from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, critique capitalism, and American culture in general. They range from documentary to surreal to breathtakingly complex. Some are filled with irony and all invite us to look more closely about us. Although Evans died in 1975, these images feel timeless, holding a mirror up to today's culture as they did when they were first taken.
Most biting for me is the image entitled Bridgeport's Italian Women Insist Upon Their Patriotism (1941), which shows four women riding in a black convertible sedan during a parade. American flags fly on each side of the windshield and a sign on the car door says "Love or Leave America." In the background stands a mostly African-American crowd. Evans' image forces us to question what patriotism is, the role of the first amendment, and what the American identity (if such a thing exists) is.
The American identity is something that Evans examines over and over in Signs, which is why I found the book a compelling read.
Walker Evans: Signs is no longer in print, but can be found used.