There are currently two museum shows of the work of Walker Evans in New York City, one at the Metropolitan, a smaller one at the Modern. The photographs clearly show that Evans, as early as the 1930's, was a member of the "No Bull Shit" school of photography. In the interest of decency this will be referred to as the NBS school for the rest of this column.
As current newspaper, magazine and TV photography is currently falling prey to non newsworthy (often fatuous) subjects, staged events that are made to look like unstaged events and dramatic recreations (all known for the rest of this article as, collectively, the "A Lot of Bullshit" or ALBS school of photography), it might be well to examine the work of man who was an enthusiastic amateur, a magazine professional, someone who denied he was an artist and, finally, a teacher.
Among the photographers who influenced him were Atget, Weston, Sander, Strand and Steiner, all pioneering members of the NBS. For all practical purposes, he rejected the work of the more pictorial Steiglitz and Steichen. While now best known for the people of "Now Let Us Praise Famous Men" and the buildings of his Farm Security Administration work, he was prolific. He was the DeKoenig of photography, always changing and evolving in his interests and style. From 1927 until he died in 1975 he never stood still.
But what is most important to journalists was his refusal to just take a picture and go home. He insisted on taking what he considered a good picture. When he was working for the Farm Security Administration with the likes of Ben Shahn, Carl Mydans, Dorothea Lange and Arthur Rothstein, he was a bad boy. Roy Stryker objected to his imposing such formal order on the chaos he was sent to photograph. Evans repented, promised to be good and kept right on doing things his way. With the wisdom of hindsight, it's possible to say that Evans was right.
Indeed, there are rumors that when he was working with his 8x10, he would expose both sides of the holder for each picture - but only return one to the FSA. Obviously, he was taking pictures to his standards.
Why in the world do news pictures have to be good? Why can't we just take a picture and go home? Pictures often determine whether a story is read or not. In addition to providing visual information, they are often the real headlines. They're big, bold and tell you what you are about to read. They bring you to a stop and help you decide whether you're going to stick around and read the article. They can even make you start to read a bad article.
But, of course, there is a more important reason. It's your picture. Who wants to spend his life taking crap. Who wants to look back at his career and say, "I really didn't do anything worthwhile." As an old dude, I have had the unfortunate experience of hearing that from good people who are a little less happy than they ought to be.
That's why it is better to stop people in their tracks with a good picture rather than the gimmicks of the ALBS school of photography. Sure you can stop people with a gimmick. You can use effect filters, have the subject stick out their tongue or create a situation that is interesting but a lie. But people catch on pretty quickly, and you have to keep finding new gimmicks. The old fisheye doesn't quite have the impact it used to. But, again, most important, who wants to look at their work and say, "What a load of crap."
And the last reason to be an NBS rather than an ALBS? You're a news photographer. Don't run around saying, "Boy, am I wonderful." Say, "Boy, what is in front of the camera is wonderful." ALBS is about the photographer. NBS is about the subject.
If you can't get to NYC (or don't want to), there are two books currently in print that will show you the scope of Walker Evans' work. Walker Evans, The Hungry Eye (ISBN 0-8109-3259-8. And the hardcover catalog of the Metropolitan exhibit, Walker Evans (ISBN 0-691-05078-3.
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