In 1935, a literary-minded dandy from New York named Walker Evans traversed the country for 14 months on the government dime. In response to the Great Depression, the Farm Security Administration (FSA) commissioned a now-legendary group of photographers to document the economic and social scene of the mid-'30s. Although Evans was a man of few political convictions, the gig offered three major perks: a paycheck, the use of a car, and the freedom to criss-cross the country, making what would become one of the single most important bodies of work in the history of photography.
In Walker Evans: Lyric Documentary, John T. Hill compiles a "best of" from Evans' FSA years, and sequences them in the approximate order in which they were made. More than in any previous presentation of Evans' work, this allows us not only to watch the artist's maturation over the course of his seminal trip, but more compellingly, to ride shotgun with Evans on his travels through the South.
Over the course of his FSA shooting, Evans fully developed what he called his "documentary style." He rejected the label "documentary photographer," and instead said that documentary was just the "style" he worked in, implying that something altogether different was going on underneath the surface. The true nature of his photographs here is a literary sensibility: Influenced heavily by Gustave Flaubert, Evans tried to make his camera "invisible," in order to let the beauty and ironies of his subjects do most of the talking. So to this end, Evans eschewed fancy camera angles and darkroom tricks, modeling himself more on anonymous postcard photographers than on aesthetic giants like Alfred Stieglitz. This understated style of shooting rarely knocks uninitiated viewers off their feet; Evans' style is infectious, though, and after repeated viewings, one begins to recognize his signature motifs and sly winks to the audience.
The tritone reproductions here are among the finest I have ever seen—of Evans' photographs or anybody else's—and their tonal range actually surpasses Evans' original black-and-white prints. The book also includes detailed notes and visual aids from a lecture Evans gave at Yale in 1964 entitled "My Aesthetic Autobiography," which only cements Lyric Documentary's current position as the best Walker Evans monograph on the market today.