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Jesse Pearson Reviews 'Walker Evans: The Magazine Work'

As a young man in the 1920s, long before he considered becoming a photographer, Walker Evans (1903-1975) wanted to be a writer. Not just a writer, but an important writer. That was his dream, and the burden of it seems to have been crushing. “I wanted so much to write that I couldn’t write a word,” he would say in 1966 to the New Yorker’s Brendan Gill. But unlike most frustrated authors, who have to settle for other jobs, from garbage man to CEO, Evans was blessed with a different—but just as ethereal—natural gift: his photographic eye. Lucky man. (And, it should be noted, he did go on to occasionally write very capable texts to accompany his journalistic photo work.)

Jesse Pearson Reviews 'Walker Evans: The Magazine Work'
'People and Places in Trouble,' Fortune, March 1961.

Like any other Evans zealot, I’ve looked at the photos—the different eras and series and tones—and wondered where and how the wannabe writer inside was leaking both into and out over the edges of the pictorial frame. What was it like for Evans to see his images paired with a text as muscular as James Agee’s when they collaborated on Let Us Now Praise Famous Men? To quote the Tootsie Pop owl, “The world may never know.” (Or maybe this was actually covered in that Evans biography I read a few years ago; I can’t remember now.)

Jesse Pearson Reviews 'Walker Evans: The Magazine Work'
'Labor Anonymous,' Fortune, November 1946.

But of course Evans’ photos did tell stories, more effectively than many writers can. In the recent Steidl book Walker Evans: The Magazine Work (ed. David Campany), we can see Evans laboring quite explicitly in the interest of telling stories.

Jesse Pearson Reviews 'Walker Evans: The Magazine Work'
'The Auto Junkyard,' Fortune, April 1962.

His journalistic work appeared in magazines like Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, Sports Illustrated and Life. Some of the most compelling work in this volume was originally published in Fortune, which, wow, apparently was one hell of a periodical in the 1940s and 50s. Witness the portfolio of heroic full-page photos of common tools reproduced here, from its July 1955 issue. Like relics from an ancient culture, proletarian pliers, snips and a crate opener are presented with the anthropological exactitude of an exhibition at the Met. They exude pure potential power, and in Evans’ eye they speak deeply of the hands that use them and the work they do.

Jesse Pearson Reviews 'Walker Evans: The Magazine Work'
'Beauties of the Common Tool,' Fortune, July 1955.

Another interesting highlight is a portfolio from the March 1955 Fortune, which contains photos of freight car insignia. These corporate identifiers—colorful calling cards of the Union Pacific Railroad, the Missouri Pacific Lines, the Wabash and more—poignantly record a time that has now doubly gone by, vital pieces of Americana that were fading even as Evans made these photos six decades ago. The portfolio is entitled Before They Disappear.

Jesse Pearson Reviews 'Walker Evans: The Magazine Work'
'Before They Disappear' Fortune, March, 1957.

A group of photos called Color Accidents, published in Architectural Forum in 1958, comprises a stunning display of Evans’ observational superpowers. Neglected corners of random buildings—patchwork compositions of chipped paint and rust—are framed so as to divorce the details from the structures to which they are attached, rendering them potent abstractions, haphazard geometric discoveries bypassed by the rest of the world, but sought and found by Evans. Imagine him out in the world on the hunt. That story alone is worth who knows how much writerly scribbling.

Jesse Pearson Reviews 'Walker Evans: The Magazine Work'
'Color Accidents,' Architectural Forum, January 1958.

Jesse Pearson Reviews 'Walker Evans: The Magazine Work'
'Main Street Looking North from Courthouse Square,' Fortune, May 1948.

Jesse Pearson Reviews 'Walker Evans: The Magazine Work'
'Architectural Studies by Walker Evans,' The Architectural Record, September 1930.

JESSE PEARSON is the founder and editor of Apology. He was previously an editor at index and the editor-in-chief of Vice. He currently lives in Los Angeles, where he is Creative Director of Super Deluxe.

Walker Evans: The Magazine Work

Walker Evans: The Magazine Work

Hbk, 9.75 x 13 in. / 256 pgs / illustrated throughout.

$65.00  free shipping