Books On My Desk: Walker Evans, Walker Evans (again), Altered Landscapes, and James Fee

On my extensive Fall trip I purchased a used book or two—well, ok, I purchased so many I was forced to ship boxes of them home to make room in the FJ Cruiser for me and my camera gear. Here I continue to highlight a few of the more interesting finds.

Walker Evans: Decade by Decade
Essay by James Crump, who also put together this exhibition and catalog for the Cincinnati Museum of Art in 2010, where he was then the curator of photography.
Published by Hate Cantz in lovely four-ink black and white (rather than the standard duo or tritone printing).

The influence of Walker Evans’ 1930s work on the the wider culture beyond photography circles is probably best summarized by art critic Hilton Kramer who wrote in 1971 (as quoted in Crumb’s essay):

For how many of us, I wonder, has our imagination of what the United States looked like and felt like in the nineteen thirties been determined not by a novel or a play or a poem or a painting or even by our own memories, but by the work of a single photographer, Walker Evans?

And that’s probably true and it’s also true that our perception of Walker’s work is centered on that work—much of what came after, when he was out of favor in the clubby art world and working at Fortune magazine had not, as of this exhibition, received much attention.

This book attempts to fill in all those missing years with work that Evans thought at least the equal of the Depression-era work, with an excellent essay outlining the rise of John Szarkowski as a force in the photography world, which both cemented Evans’ reputation and constrained it.

As for the Evans photos from the 1930s it’s also worth noting that in the catalog for the 1971 show at MOMA, probably there highest peak of Walker Evan’s fame, Szarkowski wrote:

It is difficult to know now whether Evans recorded the America of his youth or invented it…Beyond doubt, the accepted myth of our recent past is in some measure the creation of this photographer…

Walker Evans: Simple Secrets
Photographs from the Collection of Marion and Benjamin A. Hill
Published by the High Museum of Art, in Atlanta, in 1997

When you donate a collection of photographs to a museum—or sell it (the auction house Christie’s is involved here in some way)—they put a book out. Simple Secrets is such a book but it is also a nice, easy to carry summary of the breadth of Walker Evans’ career and as such an excellent companion to Decade by Decade, reviewed above.

As Decade by Decade_mentions, Evan’s was indifferent at best to print quality or even keeping track of his prints, thus it is hard to judge a book reproduction based on “vintage” prints. However, when the images look right they look very right. Interestingly, given Evan’s haphazard approach to print quality, he seems to have been quite a bit more particular about book design, including fonts. This book’s “size and general character” is based on his early books. Furthermore, “Walker Evans was concerned with the minute production details of books presenting his work, including the selection of typefaces. A similar cutting of Walbaum,” the font used in this book, “was used in _American Photographs,” Evans’ major early publication.

The full exhibition sets to be represented here, with a section at the end of smaller images, a half-dozen or so to a page, representing the ones that did not appear in the catalog’s main section.

The Altered Landscape
Edited by Pater E. Pool with essays by Thomas W. Southall (taking an art-historical perspective), Dave Hickey (aesthetic perspective) and Patricia Nelson Limerick (social-historical perspective)
Co-published by the Nevada Museum of Art and the University of Nevada Press in 1999

First thing first. There are two books, both published on the Altered Landscape, a primary collection area at the Nevada Museum of Art, this one and another titled _ The Altered Landscape: Photographs of a Changing Environment_ published twelve years later. They are different books, with different essays, looking at the same collection which apparently was growing rapidly enough to warrant two similarly named books.

The focus of this book is, as its name suggests, on altered landscapes—that is, landscape photography that has been changed by humans—a sort of counterweight to what some may see as the traditional realm of landscape photography. The mandate seems broad, probably overly broad, and you might be expecting the book to show a haphazard hodgepodge of images like one of those online photo contests with superficial “themes.” Instead the book holds up well, the images made with a seriousness of purpose and their selection with an equivalent seriousness.

Of course you have Robert Adams and Lewis Baltz represented here, a direct of a reaction against the Ansel Adams school of photography as you could want. Then there are images by Jim Sunburn where he projects grids and other geometric shapes on hug rock outcroppings at night, and a striking aerial image by Marilyn Bridges showing a highway forming by some engineering alchemy out of the compacted sands and dry washes of the Nevada desert.

This is a valuable book to any landscape photographer, inspiring work and, at the same time, warning them off good ideas that have been done before. Perhaps the most surprising thing about this book is that is makes me want to own the other one.

James Fee
Photographs by James Fee with an essay by Craig Krull
Published in 2001 by St. Anne’s Press

I found this last month at a used bookstore in Menlo Park and I had to have it. The book was twenty dollars and I couldn’t believe it hadn’t already been snatched up at that price—mint condition, wrapped in clear plastic. I’m not a collector of books, despite what some people may think when they visit my home with its wall-length bookshelves and stacks on the floor and, this is where I begin to doubt my own claim that I am not a collector, I already had a copy.

Why did I buy it? Because it is such a good book. And I thought maybe I would make it a gift someday, to someone. Maybe.

Back in 2001 I had a real job and I had kids and I had a wife and I had a house and I was getting a little tired. My photography was suffering, I wasn’t able to give it the attention it needed. And so I blamed society. Oh, boo hoo, I wasn’t positioned in life with the resources to make the photographs I wanted to make. Boo hoo, I wasn’t free of all these constraints, I couldn’t make good work and it wasn’t my fault.

An artist’s life goes in a sine-wave-like pattern, from thinking you are the most amazing photographer ever born to thinking that maybe you’ll just burn every stupid negative and erase every worthless file and be done with it. I must have been in an especially pronounced down cycle when I bought this book, and I looked at the images and I looked especially at the images that James Fee made of New York City and I thought, this is what I mean. Really great work that boo hoo I’ll never have the time to go out and make.

I spent a lot of time looking at his work in those pages, again and again admiring the New York images—and then I read the essay. Twenty-two years ago I read the essay and I can’t recall anything it said except that it said that Fee made the New York images in four days. Four days.

And I remember thinking, dumbfounded, my god, I have four days.

A couple of years later I wrote Fee, telling him of my admiration for his work (in this and other books) and telling him that I purchased a few of his prints , and telling him some version of the story I have just shared. I just wanted to let him know. He invited me up for lunch but I was busy with travel and other obligations just then and I delayed taking him up on his offer. A few months later I learned that he had died of cancer.

His work is a little bit forgotten now. His projects look very different from each other—the general advice on what to do to be commercially (and, nowadays, curatorially) successful is to do something and then do it again and again and again—but each project is imbued with a sense of deep feeling and exploration, with real photographic-ness that is, oddly, absent in so much photographic work.

This book, well timed as it was in its appearance in my life, has in some way set an example to me, has motivated me to keep working even when it would be so much easier to not work. I’ve got four days, I do, and I hope to make the most of them.

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