Review: Walker Evans: Signs

A book review I wrote for in 1998. I was fortunate to have attended an exhibit of his work at the High Museum in Atlanta prior to writing the review. The place was packed and you could hardly see the photographs. It helped me appreciate the book and the quality of the printing.

‘Walker Evans: Signs’

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Photographer Exposes the Layers of Truth

‘Walker Evans: Signs’

‘With an essay by Andrei Codrescu’

(CNN) — Not long ago the High Museum in Atlanta hosted an exhibit of photographs by Walker Evans. As a collector of archival photographs, I was excited to have an opportunity to see such a large collection in one place. But I went on the last day of the exhibit and had to fight the crowd for even a brief glimpse of Evans’ work.

Now the J. Paul Getty Museum — holder of over 1,300 works by Evans — has published ‘Walker Evans: Signs’, featuring 50 photographs created primarily in the 1930s. It is a wonderful sample of Evans’ work — and far easier to peruse than a traveling exhibit.

Evans grew up surrounded by popular culture and imagery, his father worked in advertising, and his photography reflects this upbringing.

The images in ‘Signs’ are built around Evans’ fascination with things that, on their surface, seem almost mundane. And to the casual observer, these photographs might not have much to offer. For those with eyes to see, however, these works reveal America at a time when the people were only just beginning to become self-aware. What on the surface appears nothing more than advertising becomes, with Evans’ careful composition, nothing less than social commentary.

As Andrei Codrescu points out in his near-poetic essay; “The ‘masses,’ that ideology-laden, bottom-heavy notion of the thirties, underwent a thorough examination by Evans’ camera.” Evans had a knack for spotting the details in a scene that revealed more than a casual glance could ever catch. And it is the details that reveal the subtle truths about a moment in time.

From the streets of Cuba to the crowds of Times Square, Evans captures the essence of time and place, exposing the layers of truth hidden beneath the veneer of popular imagery. Take time to see what at first glance is not obvious, and the experience will be different every time you open the cover.