Walker Evans’s American Photographs is a touchstone for modern photography—a remarkable collection of photographs that shows a “poetics of editing and sequencing,” according to MoMA’s former Chief Curator of Photography Peter Galassi, that “helped to establish the photographer’s book as an indivisible unit of artistic expression.” First published in 1938 to accompany an exhibition of photographs by Evans, the Museum’s first one-man photography exhibition, the original publication was a deluxe letterpress edition that Evans worked on with more attention to detail than he apparently paid the show (which, according to legend, he installed in a single evening). Its influence is widely acknowledged, yet the book has been out of print for long periods since it was first published in 1938 and even its later editions—two of which altered Evans’s original design in small but significant ways—are often unavailable outside libraries and the occasional rare bookstore. So it is thrilling to announce that MoMA has just released the 75th-anniversary edition, which recreates the original volume as closely as possible. For the first time since the book was published, we get to experience it as Evans intended.
For the original volume, perhaps aware that the book would capture his legacy as a seven-week exhibition never could, Evans considered its every aspect, from the selection of images and their exact sequence to the deliberately unembellished design that places only one image per spread and relegates distractions like titles and captions to the end of each section. The result is an extraordinary pictorial record that invites close viewing of each image but also ties them together into a rich visual chronicle of America from the late-1920s to the mid-1930s.
The process of recreating the original for the 75th-anniversary edition was by no means straightforward: beyond restoring the original design and typography, emulating the exact cropping and nuanced tones of the original reproductions posed specific challenges. As Sarah Hermanson Meister, curator in the Department of Photography at MoMA, notes in her text for the new edition, only a handful of the prints used to make the original plates still exist, and many of the plates in the 1938 book were extensively reworked by hand before publication. But thanks to new digital technologies, which, for example, allow information from two distinct prints to be combined to achieve a closer resemblance to the 1938 reproduction than any single source could provide, this latest edition of American Photographs is able to convey the true character of the original volume as no earlier reprint has.
For more of Meister’s note on the 75th-anniversary edition, download a free sample PDF of Walker Evans’s American Photographs.