Review: Walker Evans - Decade by Decade


Book Reviews, Photobooks


Whether “Walker Evans is probably the single greatest American photographer ever to have worked in the twentieth century” as Walker Evans: Decade by Decade asserts I don’t know. It does sound like a bit of a bold statement, given the competition. Bold claims aside, Walker Evans definitely was one of the most important American photographers of the past Century. This new volume, an overview of his entire oevre, from the early late 1920s work until the Polaroids from the 1970s, take a few year before his death, shows why.

Condensing a life spent with photography into two hundred pages is no simple task, and for a photographer as complex as Evans it can only scratch the surface. But Walker Evans: Decade by Decade scratches the surface - or maybe the various surfaces - very convincingly, offering everything there is to see, dividing the images into periods (“The Depression Years: The South”, “The Fortune Years And Beyond”, etc.). The book seems destined to become the Evans landmark.

Those interested in the history of the photographic print might want to take note of the following, which can be found at the end of the book:

“In choosing to print Evans’s images in the four-colour offset process, we have deviated from most books available about this artist’s work. The industry standard over the years has been to reproduce Evans’s black-and-white silver gelatin silver prints with duotone or tritone processes, which limit the tonal range by the use of only one or two inks in addition to the standard black. The present volume faithfully reproduces Evans’s original vintage works even when there are obvious shortcomings in the artist’s darkroom practices. In this attempt to reproduce the photographs more accurately, the plates not only complement the book’s texts, they also allow for the best understanding of Evans’s material choices and his working process over five decases.” (note the text does indeed use “Evans’s”)

And indeed, the photographs differ quite clearly, often from page to next page, something photography history buffs might enjoy (of course, those eager to see beautifully printed books might also want to have a look).

As I noted here before, 2010 is a good year for those interested in the history of photography, and I think Walker Evans: Decade by Decade is one of those books you need to create shelve space for.

Walker Evans: Decade by Decade, photography by Walker Evans, with contributions by James Crump and Aaron Betsky, 256 pages, Hatje Cantz, 2010