Walker Evans American Photographs at the MoMA

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My first encounter with the work of Walker Evans was, I think, the most mind-bending revelation I’ve ever had with regard to expanding my concepts of the possibilities of photography. Until then, my personal experience of attempting “serious” photography had been shooting landscapes and nature, and my chief inspiration was the highly colorful Fuji Velvia work of the great Galen Rowell. Could there be anything else?

Then one day, must have been in the late 1990s, my son suggested that we go and check out a Walker Evans exhibit that was running in NYC. So we did. And thereby entered an entirely new artistic world. Art? Yes. Evans’s work is highly documentary and his subject matter disarmingly ordinary, but for all that, he thought carefully about his compositions and the use of light and dark. At that exhibit several years ago, what knocked me over the head most was the ordinariness of his subjects. Here weren’t spectacular landscapes, mountains, waterfalls, but plain regular people, plain regular buildings, including gas stations and shacks. All in monochrome.

My son commented on this ordinariness, “Who today would ever think of just photographing a Stewart’s Shop?” (For those of you who don’t live in upstate New York, think 7-/11, Cumberland Farms, Wawa.) That remark stuck in the back of my head for years and eventually was the catalyst for my own work photographing old buildings—stores, homes, resorts, whether repurposed or ruins. Whether I’ve yet to capture successfully the iconic Stewart’s Shop remains to be seen, though I’m trying.

At the latest Walker Evans exhibit, Walker Evans American Photographs now on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, it was Evans’s artistic approach that made me take notice. As I said above, he clearly thought out his compositions; just because his subject matter was ordinary, everyday life didn’t mean that he just picked up the camera and clicked. Just as the stunning Ansel Adams show at the Peabody-Essex Museum in Salem, MA in 2012 revealed to me the important roles of light and dark in Adams’ compositions, so this Evans show did the same for the kinds of subjects he worked with.

Walker Evans American Photographs commemorates the 75th anniversary of the first one-person photography exhibition in MoMA’s history as well as the accompanying publication, which established the potential of the photographer’s book as an indivisible work of art. Here is MoMA’s own description: “Through these projects Walker Evans created a collective portrait of the eastern United States during a decade of profound transformation—one that coincided with the flood of everyday images, both still and moving, from an expanding mass culture, and the construction of a Modernist history of photography.”

The exhibit includes approximately sixty prints from MoMA’s collection that were included in the 1938 exhibition or in the accompanying landmark publication. Obviously I can’t reproduce his work here, but if you click this link you’ll see a good selection of them. One of my favorites is the fish shack, which shows Evans at his best, making sense of those wonderfully busy places and reminding me of similar buildings in New England or, in one case, of a beloved smoked fish shack on the Baltic coast in northern Sweden.  Walker Evans American Photographs is running until March 9.  Here are further details. If you are anywhere in or near NYC, don’t miss it.

Oh, the photo at the top? Zabar’s, one of NYC’s most amazing food emporia. I took this photo the same day. Again, if you’re in the city for the Evans exhibit (or any other reason), don’t miss Zabar’s, especially if you’re a cheese aficionado.

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Ansel Adams the Greatest Teacher

If you live within 500 miles of Salem, Massachusetts, absolutely do not miss the Ansel Adams exhibition at the Peabody Essex Museum. Entitled At the Water’s Edge, it showcases more than 100 original photos by Adams, ranging from the iconic Reflections at Mono Lake to images never before seen in public. As someone who loves New England and photographs there often, I was amazed to see a close-up of barnacles at Cape Cod. 

As the title suggests, all the images on display have something to do with the theme of water–whether waves, snow, tides, the Old Faithful Geyser, even the Golden Gate before the Bridge image that hung over Adams’s desk. One thing I found very striking (as someone who enjoys photographing water myself) was his preference for crisp, sharp images that freeze a very brief instant of time and that thus produce, say, a very detailed shot of a wave breaking. This was after a brief period in which he was influenced by the Pictorialists, who preferred soft rather than crisp images and long shutter speeds to produce a silky water effect.

The latter sort of image is very popular today, especially among those who like to shoot waterfalls. Reflecting on Adams’s “defection” from the Pictorialist to the Modern school, I thought of my own recent journey of discovery with shutter speeds and water. In spring 2011 I was fortunate to be on the Rhode Island coast during the spring full moon. The tides were amazing and the wind was, well, this was Rhode Island!  Then came the icing on the cake as the full moon rose over Rhode Island Sound as I was shooting. Here are two images I shot that evening.  The first one shouldn’t have been made with that slow shutter speed; it doesn’t look right, you want to capture the incredible power of the waves and you need to freeze the action in order to do this. In the next shot the slow shutter speed works better, because it captures the water, after the wave has broken, washing over the rocks.

 

The day after seeing the Ansel Adams exhibition at PEM I was out early in the morning in that same spot–the Sachuest National Wildlife Refuge. I found one of my favorite rocks, the light was right, and the waves were breaking. I ramped up the ISO to 640 and shot at f14, 1/500 second. And those who read this blog regularly will know that I like to do black-and-white conversions, and this image was a perfect candidate–it’s the breaking wave frozen in time against the contrast of the rock and water that was important, and so I converted the image to B&W.

Another thing that struck me was how Adams wasn’t afraid to have almost solid patches of black in his images. Nowadays we tend to feel we should open up the shadows. Clearly, the solid black patches depend on contrast for their effectiveness; they’re not going to work if they’re situated in an otherwise dark picture. Here is the interpretive journey of another of my images. It was taken at sunrise last December at a lake in the Catskills of New York. (The blue colorcast is natural, not a result of processing.) A friend suggested that I might want to try opening up the dark clump of trees on the right side, which I did. You see the result here. Then after seeing the Ansel Adams show I wondered how I could process this image differently. So I went back to the saved psd file and, after trying a few different presets in Nik Silver Efex Pro 2, decided on Full Dynamic (harsh). The Contrast was already at 34, which worked for me. I increased the Brightness to 12 and the Structure to 4, because contrast in texture can also be important in B&W processing.

Different ways of interpreting a scene and of interpreting one Raw image. Tell me which you like. And tell me what you think after you see this awesome Ansel Adams exhibition at the PEM.