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Tag Archives: Walker Evans

As a photographer for nearly 40 years, now approaching 60, I began making photographs in the “dark ages” of photography—when the act of making a photograph required a darkroom.  A photograph was made on film, exposing a negative, which was a physical object, used to make a print, also a physical object.  The creation of a print required time and materials.  The making of a good print also required experience and skill.  Once a photograph was created, it persisted for a long time—I have, hanging in my home, at least a dozen photographs that are close to or more than 100 years old.

Objects 1

Atget, Friedlander (press photo), and the ass

There were some major disadvantages to the making of photographs the old way.  The process was time consuming, the materials were relatively expensive, and most photographic prints tended to be small.   My recollection is that a roll of black and white film in the early 1980s cost about $1, (about 3 cents per 35 mm negative) a package of 25 sheets of paper cost about $12—this is after the Hunt Brothers attempt to corner the market on silver—so not terribly expensive by my standards today, but sufficiently expensive to limit my ability to make lots of pictures, especially when I was young and poor.

Objects 2

Double Evans (LOC), loon, and pine cone

Even more limiting was the way the photographs looked—a black and white silver print looked a certain way, and it was relatively difficult to change the appearance of the photograph in any significant way.  Most photographers embraced the idea of a “straight print”, meaning that an image would be created by the optics of a lens, recorded on film, and converted to a print though a second lens, but with no attempt to change the content or the look of the image.  A “good photographer” was one who understood the materials he was working with, and managed to create beautiful objects.

Objects 3

Clockwise from top, Friedlander (press photo), Loman Brothers, anonymous, and Evans (LOC)

Although I didn’t understand it at the time, I witnessed the beginning of digital photography, during the space program in the 1960s.  TV had been around for a few decades before I was born (it was invent in 1929), but the resolution was pretty bad.  Only during the space program did NASA begin to create higher resolution sensors in order to create still images that could be sent in a digital stream back to earth.

Now, almost all photographs are digital.  There is no film, no negative.  Memory chips have become incredibly cheap.  When I first began making digital photographs in 2001, memory chips cost about $1 per megabyte, so a 3 megabyte picture created by my first digital camera cost $3 of storage to hold it, roughly 100x more expensive than a film negative in the 1980s.  But the chips could be downloaded and cleared, so used over and over again, and storing images as Jpegs allowed more images to be stored on a chip.  During my first few years of working with a digital camera, my shooting was limited by both the small size of the chips and the high cost of the rechargeable batteries—at first I could shoot maybe 50 pictures a day.  I eventually discovered that I could buy disposable batteries for about $10, and chips started getting cheaper, so I soon found I could shoot more pictures—I remember going to the Grand Canyon for the first time in May 2002, and shooting a few hundred pictures in one day (just checked my Lightroom database—I could do about 300 pictures per day then).  Now I buy 16 GB chips for $6 each, each one holds about 2000 Jpeg images   When I went to China in 2011, I shot about 6,000 pictures on a seven day trip.  I don’t even clear the chips anymore.  Chips are cheaper, per image, than negative sleeves.  And, yes, that was a test of your age—at one time negatives were stored in plastic or glassine sleeves, which you hand wrote the “metadata” on—the date and place the pictures were made.  They cost about a penny per negative.  At current chip prices, an image costs about three tenths of a cent to store on a memory chip.  300 for a buck.  Not bad.

Back in the dark ages, all photographs were made with cameras.  Now, the majority of digital images are made with cell phones.  People used to pull out their wallets to show pictures of their kids.  Now they pull out their cell phones and show pictures of their cats.  It used to take days or weeks to get film back from the drugstore—now people text or tweet an image to the world in seconds.

Object 5

Neil and Buzz, a week before the moon, July 1969

I remember watching Neil Armstrong take his first steps on the moon in 1969 on a black and white television at a neighbor’s house—an event that had been anticipated for a decade—probably the most expensive piece of television broadcasting ever made.  It was news, but only because somebody finally did something that required heroic amounts of money, brains, and luck, something we weren’t sure that humanity was capable of.  I remember the first news event I learned from the internet—the death of Princess Di—my wife was puttering on the net and saw the news come up only minutes after the event.  And then there was the live video feed from the wing of Sully’s plane in the Hudson…  Some untrained non-journalist with a $100 cell phone broadcasting news to the world.

My 20 year old son has convinced me to make an Instagram account.  I don’t really know what to do with it.  My one instinct is to use it to post pictures instantly—to see something, to make a picture, and to post it within seconds—isn’t that what the instant thing means?  I’ve done that a couple times, but somehow it seems a bit unsettling—to commit an image that quickly to the world. Maybe I could have done better.  Maybe I look like a fool.

On the other hand, in following several younger photographers, it is apparent that many people, or at least some of the ones I follow, don’t do posts that way—they shoot images with a “real camera” (a digital camera, not a cell phone), then load them to their Instagram account days or weeks or months later.  A lot of the photographs are manipulated in some way—one photographer always reduces the color saturation, another does major shifts to the hue of the color, and makes composite images.  A lot of the photos look like model shoots.  My son goes out and poses for pictures that appear on Instagram.  I only follow a handful of people, about the same number follow me.  I don’t “like” that many pictures, and my audience apparently doesn’t “like” my pictures that much either.

Object 4

Anonymous Itinerant Photographer

OK, so maybe it’s time to discuss my Luddite tendencies.  Over the past year or so, I tried hitting the “send to iPhone” button on my Sony Camera, but even though my Bluetooth connection was established between the two devices, the camera just got stuck, the picture never got transferred.  After several attempts over several months, I eventually discovered that I needed to download “the app” from Sony onto my phone.  To download “the app”, I had to use the iPhone App store.  My “Apple ID” didn’t work.  I reset my password, tried to download the app.  My phone went into the Apple version of the Windows “blue screen of death” mode.  I had to go to my computer, google the magic reset combo for the phone (I kept trying to do a reset with a paperclip—discovered the absence of a reset hole).  I just tried it again—after a 30 minute struggle, I managed to get my phone to talk to my camera—and transferred one picture.  Not sure I could do it again.  Not sure I want to do it again.

What I have been doing with my Instagram account is occasionally making an IPhone picture of a print I’ve made—kind of like the long way around to get to an instant digital picture that will immediately vanish into the infinity of all the other digital images out there on the internet—but somehow it helps me knowing that somewhere in the process, the image exists on paper.  It is, or at least it was, a real photograph.  It is an object. Like the photos on my wall.  Maybe that image will still exist in a hundred years.  Or maybe not.

OK, to join the endless self-promotion—which my son tells me is the point of all this–I Instagram at dennis_witmer_photo

When I went to China, now just over two years ago, one of the things I experienced for the first time was the Chinese political speech.  These speeches were shouted from written scripts, one word at a time, as loudly as possible.  During the conference (which I and nine other American photographers participated in), many of the speeches were simultaneously translated into English for us foreigners.   I don’t remember much of what was said—I’m not sure if this is because the speeches seemed so trite when translated into English, or if the translation into English stripped all speech of subtlety, but either way, sitting through the speeches was moderately annoying, though the tea they served was very good, and the speeches ended soon enough.

Houston, 2008

Houston, 2008

I think all of the English speakers were somewhat concerned about how what we had to say might be translated into Chinese—one of my first moments after meeting my host at the airport was being asked if I would like any snakes—I politely refused—I’m not especially fond of snakes, and being offered them in plural form after 30 hours in airplanes and airports is not what I expected–but the offer was repeated until finally I understood that what was being offered was, in fact, snacks…

And one of my favorite moments in the conference was when one of my fellow conference attendees made a comment in his talk in which he stated that “the landscape is my mistress”, which another, more experienced international traveler, noted was probably translated as “I fuck the earth”.

Whatever.   I’ve had enough conversations with Chinese friends to appreciate the difficulties in translation.  What we say and think in English may or may not translate into Chinese or the Chinese mind…

But one thing I do remember from the speeches—the Chinese repeatedly referred to “great Chinese photographic theoreticians”.   In America, I’ve never heard of any photographic theoreticians, let alone a great one. We have ph0tographers, we have curators, we have gallery directors, we have photo editors, we have photographic critics–but none of these positions correspond with “photographic theoretician”.   It apparently is a title that offers neither salary nor tenure, at least outside of China.  I always assumed that photography was an empirical enterprise, defined by observation rather than by theory.

But, of course, just because there is no official title does not mean that we are lacking in photographic theoreticians.  In the short lecture I was expected to give, I referred to Robert Adams as a “great American photographic theoretician”, a title that I’m sure he would object to with vigor, but one I hoped would translate into whatever status was given to the Chinese photographic authorities.    I can think of no better discussion about the meaning of photographs and their importance to our lives than his wonderful essays.

Houston, 2008

Houston, 2008

I once studied Physics (let me be clear—I am not a Physicist—I once referred to myself and several other students as “Physicists” in front of one of my professors—he corrected me to point out that we were, in fact, not Physicists—I asked him what made someone “a Physicist”—he stated that it was when one had actually “done some Physics”—I asked him how one knew that they had “done some Physics”—he told me that someone would tell me when I had “done some Physics”—something that I can state with certainty has never happened—so I am not “a Physicist”—but I once was student of the discipline)—where theoreticians were many and experimentalists were few (due at least in part to the huge cost of experiments in high energy particle physics)…

But I know there are photographers that are working with photographic theories that I don’t understand.  Robert Adams, Lee Friedlander, William Eggleston, Walker Evans, Timothy O’Sullivan, and, of course, Eugene Atget have all made photographs using formulas beyond my comprehension.  But I do sometimes try to replicate their results…

A friend sent me a link to a story on a newly discovered photographer, Vivian Maier, who lived and worked in Chicago as a nanny for the last half of the 20th century.  What is curious about this story is the way in which her work is being made public–a young man purchased some of her negatives at a storage locker sale in the hopes of finding images of a local area, and started scanning them, only to discover a group of powerful street portraits.  For anyone who has spent time digging through the bins at antique stores and flea markets looking for old photographs, the work of Vivian Maier is eye-popping–her work is close, focused, composed, and powerful.  I found myself when scanning her web site recalling the hints of other photographers like naming tastes in a fine wine–Walker Evans, Harry Callahan, and Diane Arbus are there, with a hint of Paul Strand.  It’s like Robert Frank without the bitterness, and Gary Winogrand without lechery (but what would Winogrand be if not a dirty old man…)

Vivian Maier 1967

Vivian Maier 1967

Of course, I’m writing this less than an hour after first watching the video link above–hardly a considered critical opinion–and I find myself with some questions about the excitement surrounding her discovery–she apparently shot 100,000 negatives in her lifetime (8,000 rolls of 6×6 film), or an average of 200 rolls a year over 50 years, or several rolls a week.  There is no question that Vivian Maier was committed to making pictures.

But the documentary I watched did not contain any mention of prints–even drugstore prints–done in her lifetime–only carefully stored negatives and exposed but undeveloped film.   As Szarkowski noted in his discussion about the unprocessed film of Winogrand at his death, the act of tripping the shutter of the camera is not quite the same as making a photograph–an artist needs to develop, print, and examine his work in order to move forward.  And there is no mention of her ever showing her work to her acquaintances in her lifetime–if art exists as a conversation between a creator and an audience, in her lifetime she never attempted to have her work viewed in this light.  And why were these negatives abandoned in a storage locker, even while she was alive?

Is Vivian Maier a great photographer, a member of the pantheon listed above, discovered after her death?  Or just another lonely soul adrift in the 20th century with a camera, shooting with enough persistence to get an occasional lucky shot, with enough awareness of the work of others to occasionally mimic their great pictures?  Given the effort required to scan film, only a fool would start at the beginning of the box and scan to the end–anybody with half a brain would put the negatives on the light table and cherry pick the images most likely to succeed as prints–so maybe we’ve already seen the handful of images that the gods of luck in photography gave her.   Susan Sontag noted that all photographs become more interesting as they age, and part of my pleasure in these images is the memories of the world of my childhood.   But I’m not sure if Maier’s work contains the seeds of greatness–a vision of the world uniquely hers,  an ability to show something no other artist has given us.

I’m pleased to read that a book of her work is being prepared–I’m sure I’ll buy it when it’s published, and put it on my self to age along with the many other photographers–and maybe in ten or twenty or thirty years it will still be there.   I hope so.  I so enjoy fine books.

When I began making photographs in 1977 in an art photography class at the small college I was attending, the art majors all talked about the importance of defining a “style”, a unique look to their pictures.  As an alien in this world (I was a physics major), it made little sense to me why one should go about defining a style (physic majors didn’t really bother about such things—just keeping up with the work load and not flunking out was hard enough) let alone how.   Besides, most of my effort was spent learning the rudiments of the craft, at the start how to avoid the worst mistakes, then later how to control the process, and trying to imitate photographs in magazines.    I must admit that I did not know why some photographs published in books were thought to be better than mine—I was especially appalled at the scratches and cracked emulsions of Atget—hell, I could do better than that.  Of course, most of my photographs from that period have, over the years, found their proper place in the world, in the trash can.

8-5732 Canwell Glacial River, August 2010

I’m not sure when I first became aware of how powerful the viewpoint of a single photographer could be—maybe it was first from books,  Robert Frank’s Americans, or Walker Evans Message from the Interior.  I do know that seeing the Robert Adams “New West” show at the Philadelphia Museum in 1982 was transformative.  Those pictures were so simple, so obvious, so clean—a style so transparent it seems not to be a style at all (I think that was how Szarkowski described Walker Evans, but it seems even more true of Robert Adams).    So I began imitating Adams, photographing the landscape as I thought he would have, had he lived in Pennsylvania rather than in Colorado.    But I soon discovered that imitation is not as easy as it looks—pictures fail in many ways—but sometimes the failures are instructive.   East coast light is different than Colorado light—I think that was when I started paying attention to Atget’s use of morning light—and trying to use it, pointing my lens into the sun, using the glow.  But mostly I just kept making photographs.

Now I’ve been making photographs for 33 years, and I haven’t thought about developing a style for a long time.  But a few weeks ago I had a discussion with another photographer about how Lee Friedlander’s work is so distinctive—you can pick out one of his pictures out of a book—you just know it’s a Friedlander.  Then we pulled a box of my photographs off the shelf, and started looking through them, pictures from this summer, Alaskan Landscapes.   And halfway through the box, like some kind of epiphany, hey, these are my pictures.  These are pictures I made, and in making them, I made many decisions—what camera to use, where to go to look for photographs, where to stop the car, where to set up the tripod, how to frame the picture, when to trip the shutter—and in printing, how big to make the print, what settings to use on the printer, what paper.  And in looking at them I suddenly realized that I make different decisions than any other photographer I know—in subject, in framing, in presentation…

8-5740 Tundra, Petersville Road, September 2010

I own these pictures. So is this my “style”?  Damned if I know.  I’m still just trying to do my work…

I sometimes find myself haunted by things I’ve seen, occasionally they are books, left slip away because I felt too poor or too cheap to buy them when I’ve held them in my hands. I still remember holding Petra by Emmet Gowin, Flowers and Trees by Lee Friedlander, and Mine Fields by Bill Burke, all books that have gone out of print and have become essentially unobtainable for someone with my budget, unless they get reprinted.

One book I held and read and remembered is Incognito, a Walker Evans book with an interview with Leslie George Katz with eight plates, a thin, tall book, elegantly printed, but (as I recall) priced at an outrageous $75 when it was released in 1995. I recall sitting in a bookstore somewhere and reading the entire interview, then the extended captions on the plates, and reluctantly putting the book back on the self, somewhat satisfied that I had devoured the book, but disappointed that such a fine book felt beyond my reach.

Peter Koster. Walker Evans

Then a few days ago, I saw a copy for sale on e-bay, advertised for more than the purchase price in 1995 but less than I expected, but I restrained my bidding finger and checked bookfinder, only to discover a copy for sale at a modest $95 from a bookseller, less than the copy on e-bay. It arrived in the mail today, in a big box with lots of padding, shrink wrapped, with an acetate cover, and several uncut pages.

The e-bay description reads, in part, “Aware of the immortal power of words, Walker Evans chose to leave a last will and testament, unmistakable in its clarity, in the form of an interview. He made sure that none of his intended clarity would be lost. This he achieved by choosing a close and trusted friend to collaborate in conducting several recorded conversations and editing them into a carefully articulated credo.” And reading the interview this evening, I had to agree—Walker Evans speaks clearly about the act of making photographs, the meaning of his work, and about “transcendence”, a word I’ve never understood except in the way he speaks of it, a faith in the act of making photographs, resulting in images of something close to magic. “…Eugene Atget … was a kind of a medium, really. He was like Blake. His work was like lightening through him. He could infuse the street with his own poetry, and I don’t think he even was aware of it or could articulate it…”

The New Topographics was the name of a exhibit of ten photographers that occurred in 1975 at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York.  I was still in high school when the show occurred, and I wasn’t into either art or photography, so its occurrence passed my notice.  I first heard about the show in 1982 or 1983 when another photographer mentioned the show as some kind of legendary event, and that the catalogue was very hard to come by, maybe the first time I ever realized that photography books might be collectable objects.  I had just started collecting photography books, back before the internet, when you might find almost anything in a used bookstore, but I never found a copy.  Then in 2000 a copy came up on e-bay–I had no idea what the book might be worth, the current bid was something like $20 when I first saw the item—so I set my wristwatch alarm, sniped a last second bid and won the book for $51.

The book itself was a bit of puzzle—it was obviously a catalog for a museum exhibit, cheaply printed, with an essay that talked about the photographs in terms of style—not of substance.  The rest of the catalog contained three images by each of the ten photographers included in the show, a thin selection in most cases, unsatisfyingly short for photographers I knew and respected, (Robert Adams, Stephen Shore, Lewis Baltz, Frank Gohlke, Nicholas Nixon, Joe Deal, and Bernd and Hilla Beecher) and annoyingly incomplete for the one photographer I had never heard of—John Schott.    I put the book on the shelf, and mostly have been impressed by subsequent sales since then—up to $1800, never less than $340—beats the hell out of the stock market…

The new “New Topographics”, printed by Steidel, is both much more satisfying and much more annoying than the original.  The more satisfying part is the inclusion of many more well printed images from each of the individual photographers, allowing the viewer a sense of the zeitgeist of the time—both in the landscape, and in the way the photographers approached it.  One of the annoying aspects, though, is that the image selection in the book is still less than the images in the 1975 show—I’m not quite sure why that bothers me—except that I missed the show the first time around, and deleting images from the book seems like I’m missing the full effect this time around, too…  I must admit, I counted images deleted from each of the photographers this time—almost like the editorial staff rationed the pain, mostly cutting everybody back to 15 images except the biggest cuts were from Stephen Shore (but lately he’s been publishing a lot from this pre-1975 body of work—maybe we really don’t need to see those images republished again…).

Perhaps worth noting is that 1975 was the year that Ansel Adams was on the ascendancy—several years before, he had announced that he would stop taking print orders at the end of 1975—his work was becoming famous, and smart buyers were streaming into his gallery and buying prints directly from the man himself.   And Walker Evans, the most direct predecessor of most of these artists, died on April 10, in relative obscurity.   By 1975, Lewis Baltz had published “The New Industrial Parks of Irvine, California” (1974), and Robert Adams had published “The New West” (1974)—their reputations were already made,  and many critics were already savaging their work.

It is perhaps worth comparing the reprinted New Topographics  with Walker Evans & Company, published in 2000, twenty five years after the show.  This book includes work by most of the New Topographics photographers, plus many others, all working in the spirit of Walker Evans.  This book feels somehow more complete, but also shows that the work of the New Topographics artists did not arise from a complete vacuum—Walker Evans had been there before, and defined a style of photography that embraced the vernacular landscape, that attempted to hide the viewpoint of the photographer with a style so straightforward that it seemed to be no style at all.   The best of the New Topographics artists have continued to refine and update this way of making photographs—but it is hard to argue that they invented it out of nothing.

Maybe the New Topographics label stuck so that it was possible to talk about landscape in a way that avoided the unreal exaggerations marketed as art—that embraced the place we live.  And for a long time, they were the losers—the Ghost Dancers.  Robert Adams perhaps described them when he wrote “Might we somehow learn the hope of the Plains Indians who… danced the Ghost Dance, their final celebration of their dream of the land’s restoration?  The ceremonies were often held, judging by the images we have, in scrappy pastures right at the edge of their enemies’ contempt.” –maybe that was the spirit of the “New Topographics” show.

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.