Photo Book Review: American Photographs

  By John Veldhoen

With new books starting to trickle in to the Camera Store, one has arrived that has me at a beginning and an end, again. To explain: Walker Evans’ pictures move me, I feel deep filiation to him, and always have. A colleague asked me why Walker Evans means so much, and I came off like a jerk, responding, that he “wouldn’t understand” why I feel the way that I do. It is because I don’t think I can explain it all, and there is just so much to say. Evans’ work, from his photographs of African sculptures at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in the volume “Perfect Documents”, to his pictures in collaboration with James Agee in the book “Let us Now Praise Famous Men,” have meant more to me than I can say. But, in a book on the Parisian photographer Eugene Atget and the American Bernice Abbott, I found a good description in a punchy, sharp introduction by Clark Worswick. Writing about Evans’ first encounter with Atget, Worswick writes:

“It was one of those rare instances when the “word” itself was revealed and magic shimmered in the dust motes hanging in the still, late afternoon air of winter. What Evans saw in the work of Eugene Atget caused Evans to define himself as an artist. Nothing Else”

In turn, I feel the same way with respect to Evans and this book, “American Photographs” is the best introduction. It was out of print for many years, this edition represents the best practice of digital reproduction of fine art photography that I have ever seen, and points the way forward from the pictures that are called, by Lincoln Kirstein, in the same book, “citations of the Hegelian theory of opposites”.

I have been thinking about what it might mean for a photograph, or anything else, to be American. I’ll admit I used to care to think of myself as “being” American. A recent article I read in the New Yorker, by Joshua Rothman, on the German Philosopher Martin Heidegger, and his Nazi politics, states what I am groping to write very well:

“Heidegger proposed a different and, to my mind, a more realistic idea of truth than any I’d encountered before. He believed that, before you could know the truth about things, you had to care about them. Caring comes first, because it’s caring about things that “unconceals” them in your day-to-day life, so that they can be known about. If you don’t care about things, they stay “hidden”—and, because there are limits to our care, to be alive is “to be surrounded by the hidden.” (A century’s worth of intellectual history has flowed from this insight: that caring and not caring about things has a history, and that this history shapes our thinking.) This is a humble way to think about truth. It acknowledges that, while we claim to “know” about a lot of things intellectually, we usually seek and know the deeper truth about only a few. Put another way: truth is as much about what we allow ourselves to experience as it is about what we know.”

Following this line, I thought I would close with another book, also now in, by my favorite contemporary photographer, Taryn Simon. What Simon does is not so much work with a camera, as work to make concepts and situations available to her camera. Her book “An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar” puts together a view of the hidden, secret, inside of American life. Evans’ mostly explored the surfaces of life, except for the interior of poor sharecropper homes, which in a sense was the exterior of American affluence at the time. What is American? To even ask it reminds me only of an interview with the filmmaker Harmony Korine, and talk-show host David Letterman. Letterman asks Korine about his motivation for writing a novel. Korine replies he “Wanted to write a great American novel… Or just a novel… Or uh, I just wanted it to be American”.

John Veldhoen

John Veldhoen

In addition to being on our sales team, John curates The Camera Store's book selection and is a contributing author of our blog. He likes to think about photography, talk about photography, and sometimes write about photography.