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January 5 - February 23, 2008 at Stephen Cohen Gallery, West Hollywood

by Annie Buckley

Once upon a time, photography held an almost magical place in the hearts and minds of viewing audiences, be they European aristocrats posing stiffly for newly available photographic portraits in the 19th century or, only a few decades later, American families marveling at vacation snapshots, each a marker of a joyful moment passed. As photography grew up, it took on many new roles, one of the most pivotal being chronicler of a rapidly developing world.

The unique ability of this medium to capture time offered a kind of flexibility and power previously unavailable to artists or historians; regions and cultures heretofore unknown to many found a visual voice thanks to the camera. For almost a century, photographers that took this path recorded and documented in an attempt to show us the world as it was. The camera didn’t lie: It didn’t have that capacity. And then suddenly (sometime over the course of the seventies and nineties, depending on the still evolving history of digital photography) it did. But this is not a paean to a world gone by. Digitization, like any advancement in technology, has only expanded and transformed the art of photography. Our current era of manipulated, color-corrected, carefully edited and often obsessively perfected images is a prescient and compelling one in which to examine the works of one of the great photographers of what can only be called, though now even the term itself has an air of uncertainty, real life.

In 1935, Walked Evans was hired as a photographer for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) project. He was sent to document the lives of people living in the South in the United States and went to that area for many months, returning with images powerfully lacking in sentimentality or ornamentation. They were instead possessed by a more straightforward, and ultimately deeply influential, approach to photography. These images, perhaps in part due to their association with the FSA project, resist categorization as ‘art’ or ‘documentation’. They are a powerful testament to both Evans’ awareness of the ability of light and shadow, composition and subject, to reveal a story. More indirectly they reflect the FSA’s unique hybridization of government, photography, and social change. The loss of this kind of healthy collaboration between artists and government, as well art and public service, is more palpably felt today than the shift from film to pixels. Whereas changing technology can only create new possibilities, the relative silence between art and government in this country is a more acute threat to expression.

"Signs, South Carolina," 1936,
black and white photograph.

"Houses and Billboards, Atlanta,"
1936, black and white photograph.

"Roadside Stand Near Birmingham,"
1936, black and white photograph.

"Joe's Auto Graveyard, Pennsylvania,"
1935, black and white photograph.

While Evans’ images of the South are among his most familiar works, and they would likely not have occurred without the FSA project, other projects add evidence to the certainty of his influence on the current generation. For example, his 1930’s series, later published as “Many are Called” (1966), includes photographs of subway riders taken with a hidden camera. The serialization and anonymity of the works predates these same qualities, prevalent in contemporary photographs today, by several decades.

While photography was once rare and mysterious, today there is little to challenge the idea that we live in a visual surround-sound of images, each intended to sell, challenge, convince, or compete, but rarely to tell the truth. Indeed, equating photographic images with truth telling seems an almost naïve assumption now that it is possible--even simple--to change, duplicate, manipulate, eradicate, or otherwise alter a photograph. But whereas digitization forces us to question what we see, documentary photography--and Evans’ work in particular--forces us to question what is.

The gallery press release informs us that the exhibition will feature original silver gelatin prints (certainly a highlight) as well as new prints, made by Martson Hill Editions; the crisp clarity of these is said to allow access to details previously hidden in many of Evans’ works. Yet one wonders if these newly available details were actually intended to be lost to the depths of an inky shadow, whether beyond the bright sun of the open door or across the eyes of an exhausted farmer. Evans, a staff photographer at Fortune magazine for twenty years post-FSA, was a remarkable artist and a professional; we must assume that what was left out was done so on purpose. Most likely, given Evans’s preference for directness, the position of the sun and his interactions with subjects guided these decisions. The presumption that newer technology could somehow improve on these original choices is curious. Regardless, the exhibition is an excellent opportunity to see some of the best works of a kind of photography that has since been eclipsed by the triple threats of time, technology, and context.