Skip navigation

Monthly Archives: October 2009

Continuing on with my list of influential photographers, Walker Evans is an obvious choice.  He has a style so simple and clean that it seems to claim to be no style at all, merely the simple truth.  I think of Robert Adam’s line that a sense of truth is the most sensuous of all the sensibilities–Walker Evans convinces us that he saw, and is showing us, the truth.

Walker Evans, Shoe Store

This image was made for the Farm Security Administration, and so is available through the Library of Congress–I managed to purchase an old contact print of this image, and it hangs in my home.

This image is published in a book called Walker Evans:  Photographs for the Farm Security Administration, 1935-1938, which shows all the Walker Evans images available from the Library of Congress.  There are a total of 488 images in this catalog, predominately done with an 8×10 view camera, although some of them were clearly done with a 35 mm camera.  There are variations in the quality of the images–not every picture succeeds as well as the one above–but the number of strong images is striking.  It is astonishing what can be accomplished in just a few images, when the camera is in the hands of someone like Walker Evans.

Cushman Street, Fairbanks, 1994, Dennis Witmer

And, of course, Walker Evans never came to Fairbanks, but maybe he would have made an image like the one above, if he had.

Eugene Atget never traveled to Alaska (and I’ve never been to Paris or France), so on one level it is impossible to directly imitate his work here.  But sometimes, when looking at an image I’ve made, I recognize how looking at his pictures has allowed me to see something in this landscape that I think I would have missed were it not for the gift of his pictures. Sometimes I’m even so inspired by him to digitally “tone” the images to something resembling the gold toned albumen prints he made…

Lake in Ran, Richardson Highway, 2004

Lake in Rain, Richardson Highway, 2004

Lake and Mountains, Tok Cut Off, 1994

Lake and Mountains, Tok Cut Off, 1994

The influence of Atget on my work include the selection of the 8×10 camera as the weapon of choice for my landscape work.  While this camera can be incredibly slow in the field, it allows (forces) contemplation during composition, and also rewards the effort with a robust, meaty image that carries the precision of the light.

When I first began photographing in the 1970’s, my photographic ideal was defined by National Geographic, but when I took a class in the Art department at the small college I was attending, I was exposed to other kinds of photographs.  The photographer that most mystified me then was Atget.  The pictures I saw from him were sometimes cracked and peeling, and parts of the images were badly out of focus.  Atget Saint CloudThe photographs, however, are full of moods and memories.  Atget worked for about 30 years, and shot somewhere around 8,500 negatives, all glass plates, and all shot with a large camera on a tripod.  He owned only three film holders, which allowed him to make only 6 exposures per day.  Often he worked with early morning light, full of mists and flare.  Over the past 30 years, there have been many new books of his work, including a wonderful volume by Szarkowski now out of print and heading to the collectible department. Unlike many other photographers who seem to have a handful of compelling images but weaken the more one looks, every new book, every new picture adds a bit more to my understanding of his work.