Walker Evans: Disasters and Divinity

Lincoln Kirstein, art critic, dance innovator, and doyen of the mid-twentieth century New York cultural scene, asserts, “It is the camera that today reveals our disasters and our claims to divinity, doing what painting and poetry used to do and, we can only hope, do again.” Such an idea can be applied to the work of canonical American photographer Walker Evans, whose photographs document the unvarnished, raw spirit of the American condition.

Walker Evans: American Photographs, now subject to a 75th anniversary reissue by the Museum of Modern Art, was first published by MoMA in 1938 as the companion to an exhibition of the same name, the first of the museum devoted to the work of a single photographer. The exhibition, comprised of 100 prints, represented a selection of Evans’ work chronicling the United States throughout the 1930s, during his commission by the Farm Security Administration to photograph the effects of the Great Depression in the South. The original exhibition catalogue, a painstakingly edited letterpress edition, contained eighty-seven photographs culled from the exhibition, along with an essay by Kirstein, a patron and friend of the artist.

Separated into two parts—the first, a study of people, and the second, a study of objects and settings that denote a quintessentially American landscape (farms, factories, train tracks, churches, general stores, and the visual cues that compose them)—the hardcover, 208-page monograph marks the fifth edition of publishing, after numerous, extended periods of being out of print. This latest edition reprises the original as closely as possible with the assistance of new digital printing technology, making the publication available for a new generation to access.

For the first time, digital technologies facilitate in exacting the detailed balance and cropping of the 1938 reproductions. Paired with Kirstein’s original essay and an afterword by MoMA curator Sarah Meister, the anniversary edition, complete with rich duotone plates, now produced from digital files, matched with the refined subtlety of the original design and typography, allows Evans’s landmark volume to become available in the form closest to its original incarnation.

Walker Evans: American Photographs is priced at $35 and available for purchase at MoMA Stores and online.