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.

Enjoy the Unexpected (or, an afternoon at the Cherry Pond)

Rob Sheppard is one of the best photo bloggers around. He brings a reflective and philosophical dimension to his writing that I don’t think I’ve encountered so consistently since the passing of the late, great Galen Rowell.  In his most recent post, Rob describes how he arrived at his intended photo destination too late for the “good light” — and made the most of it, experiencing things he would have missed had he arrived earlier and then not stayed on. Nature is not bound by arbitrary rules, he says, and he was amply rewarded by being open to (and taking advantage of) what was available instead of being disappointed by something not conforming to rigidly preset expectations.

It was timely that I read Rob’s post when I did, because I had just returned from a few days’ foliage shooting in the White Mountains of New Hampshire and had a similar experience — the difference being that I knew in advance that I was heading right into the unexpected and had to be open to anything. At this time of year, with the seasons changing, the New Hampshire mountains create their own weather, and anything is possible, including experiencing bright sunshine, clouds, rain, snow, and wind all in one day, in fact all in one afternoon. Things can change drastically when you travel a couple of miles. So, all I knew when I headed northwest for the Pondicherry Wildlife Refuge was that it wasn’t likely to be pouring rain, which was fine, all I needed to know, it was the last thing I wanted.

Getting to the Pondicherry trailhead is one thing (I’ve met many native New Hampshirites who’ve never heard of the place); then you have to hike in a good mile or more to where the action is: the shore of Cherry Pond with the spectacular view of Mount Washington and the Presidential Range on the other side. It was quite a windy day, which meant (1) the light and other atmospheric conditions might be changing several times in the course of a minute; (2) there might not be any reflections of the mountains on the pond. It did turn out that the wind occasionally abated enough to create some reflections on the pond, but I discovered that the action of the wind, when it blew, on the water produced its own kind of beauty — a shiny texture. As for the rapidly changing light and other conditions, there was nothing to do but set up the camera, find a good composition that could be tweaked here and there, watch and enjoy nature’s amazing show, and press the shutter button whenever nature’s kaleidoscope produced a new version of the scene in front of me. It was indeed quite spectaular. We’ve heard of son et lumiere — “sound and light” shows, but this was neige et lumiere — snow and light, as the interplay of snow showers and sunlight continuously created different scenes on Mount Washington’s peaks. When I arrived in New Hampshire a few days earlier there was no snow on the mountains. The morning after my visit to the Cherry Pond, Mount Washington could be seen from North Conway completely covered in snow gleaming in the bright sun. Amazing. Sun, snow, and mountains, bless the Lord.

Here’s a selection of images from this shoot. I’m not going to dwell on the technical details — that’s not really important except to say that I tend to do much less processing in straightforward nature shots than in other types of images because I want to let the natural beauty show through, and thus my processing is aimed at helping that along rather than at enhancing the image in a way that suggests that the Creator didn’t get the world quite right.

These and my many other photos (always adding new ones) can be viewed (and purchased) on my Zenfolio site.