Vice Grips, a photographic study of old used and abused Vice Grips inspired by the magazine work of Walker Evans.
Walker Evans was one of the most important and influential artists of the twentieth century, producing a body of photographs that continue to shape our understanding of the modern era. He worked in every genre and format, in black and white and in colour, but two passions were constant: literature and the printed page.
While his photographic books are among the most significant in the medium’s history, Evans’s more ephemeral pages remain largely unknown. In small avant-garde publications and mainstream titles such as Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, ArchitecturalForum, Life and Fortune he produced innovative and independent journalism, often setting his own assignments, editing, writing and designing his pages. Presenting many of his photo-essays in their entirety, Walker Evans: The Magazine Work assembles the unwritten history of this work, allowing us to see how he protected his autonomy, earned a living and found audiences far beyond the museum and gallery.
The career of Walker Evans stretched from 1928 to 1975, perhaps the most important period in the history of photography. In the 1920s the medium asserted its modern significance, spreading to every corner of culture via the growing illustrated press, becoming an art both popular and avant-garde. In the early 1970s, as the power of the illustrated press began to wane, photography secured its place in the museum and gallery. Evans was first published in the American cultural journals of the late 1920s and 30s. After the war he worked for Fortune for twenty years. He also published in Harper’s Bazaar, Vanity Fair, Vogue, SportsIllustrated, Flair, Mademoiselle, Architectural Forum and Life, among others. Where possible he set his own assignments, did his own editing and design, and supplied the accompanying words. A brilliant and idiosyncratic writer, he also penned appreciations of photographers and painters he admired, and wrote reviews forTime magazine and The New York Times.
Although Evans began to exhibit his work around the same time that he began to publish, he did not have many shows in his lifetime. He was uneasy with photography as art and cautious about his image as an artist. He did not even attend the opening night of his now legendary solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1938 (but he did lock himself in the night before to ensure the complex sequence of images on the walls was as he wanted). He was just as ambivalent about the printed page. In letters to friends he railed against the crass populist press and compiled for himself a scrapbook of its worst offences. Nevertheless he was formed and fascinated by printed matter, and felt even the most conservative publishing empire might afford the space to make good work with a resistant attitude.
Little of Evans’ magazine work is well known. Unlike a museum’s holdings, or even photographic books, magazines are ephemeral. They are expected to have a short shelf life and when it expires they often take with them the most revealing culture of their time. Despite his long working life most of the photographs upon which Evans’ reputation still rests were made in 1935 and 1936, in the American south. It was an intensively creative period in which, well paid and well resourced for the first time in his life, he focused on the making of pictures that were formally ambitious and layered in meaning. His output was prodigious. He loosened the directives set for him by his commissioners, the U.S. government’s Resettlement Administration (later the Farm Security Administration) and Fortune magazine. Deferring the question of use the images piled up. Perhaps inevitably they came to the museum as exemplary photographs in the “documentary style”, as Evans called it. After the 1930s he did reach those pictorial heights again but he never surpassed them. This is not uncommon among even the greatest photographers. Many achieve their best work early. Either they try to sustain it, which often proves difficult, or they leave for something else.
Evans’ path was different. As his career developed, his commitment to photography extended far beyond the single image to take in the whole craft complex of modern photographic culture. Rather than simply shooting and handing over his pictures to editors or agencies he sought to take much more control. This included editing, writing, design and typography and the development of an acute sense of context. In his first decade (1928–38) he mapped out for himself the enormous possibilities of sequencing and image-text relations. He also established his chief interests: America’s anonymous citizenry and vernacular culture, those emblems of resistance to the creeping values of celebrity, corporate business and consumerism. These interests became passions, explored slowly and carefully across an entire career in print. This is what makes the magazine work such a significant and lasting aspect of Walker Evans’ achievement.
An excerpt from the introduction in Walker Evans: the magazine work by David Campany
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