Walker Evans (1903–75) was a great American artist photographing people and places in the United States in unforgettable ways. He is known for his work for the Farm Security Administration, addressing the Great Depression, but what he actually saw was the diversity of people and the damage of the long Civil War. In Walker Evans, renowned art historian Svetlana Alpers explores how Evans made his distinctive photographs. Delving into a lavish selection of Evans’s work, Alpers uncovers rich parallels between his creative approach and those of numerous literary and cultural figures, locating Evans within the wide context of a truly international circle.
Alpers demonstrates that Evans’s practice relied on his camera choices and willingness to edit multiple versions of a shot, as well as his keen eye and his distant straight-on view of visual objects. Illustrating the vital role of Evans’s dual love of text and images, Alpers places his writings in conversation with his photographs. She brings his techniques into dialogue with the work of a global cast of important artists—from Flaubert and Baudelaire to Elizabeth Bishop and William Faulkner—underscoring how Evans’s travels abroad in such places as France and Cuba, along with his expansive literary and artistic tastes, informed his quintessentially American photographic style.
A magisterial account of a great twentieth-century artist, Walker Evans urges us to look anew at the act of seeing the world—to reconsider how Evans saw his subjects, how he saw his photographs, and how we can see his images as if for the first time.
"Alpers’s interest in the ‘unique’ work of Walker Evans is an interest in the ‘making’ of the photographs rather than in their interpretation: her approach is slow, patient, fastidious, detail-oriented, appreciative and illuminating. . . . It is really Starting from Scratch that is a ‘unique’ work: a close reading of classic photographs by a discerning eye (Alpers’s) that conjoins the instructional with the intimate, the scholarship of the historian with the candour of the memoirist. . . . A brilliant and, indeed, thrilling final chapter . . . considers the phenomenon of ‘late style’ as it relates to artists other than Walker Evans"—Joyce Carol Oates, Times Literary Supplement
"Warm and sympathetic . . . really a wonderful biography."—Joyce Carol Oates, Times Literary Supplement Podcast
"[A] superb book."—Richard Meyer, Artforum
"Starting From Scratch is well researched, and Alpers’s heavily quotational approach provides the reader a wealth of material from Evans’s letters, lectures, published texts, and personal writings."—Rahel Aima, The Nation
"Svetlana Alpers’s biography takes a chronological approach to the life of an artist. . . . But before the text explores Walker’s aspirations, tastes, travels, career highs and love of the written word, the reader is presented with an uninterrupted 143 full-page reproductions of Evans’s photographs—an invitation to appraise the work before engaging with the man."—Christie's
"[A] brilliant scholar of Dutch painting’s take on an artist whose work has moved and inspired me for years."—Ayad Akhtar, Elle.com
"A fresh consideration of Evans’s pictures. . . . Engaging."—Brian Sholis, Aperture
"A fresh, scholarly look—complete with more than 200 images—at the seminal American photographer, this time through the lens of fine art and literature. In a lavishly illustrated narrative bolstered by impassioned research, art historian Alpers reintroduces readers to Walker Evans (1903-1975), one of America’s great artistic observers . . . Alpers convincingly presents him as a new kind of poet. . . . Great American photography in a welcome new frame."—Kirkus Reviews
"A comprehensive study. . . . Alpers shows how Evans’s approach differed both from that of other photographers and from conventional assumptions about photography. . . . Intriguing interpretations of Evans’s photos and work process, for both specialists and general readers."—Library Journal
"An entire semester in one volume. . . . [Alpers's] analysis of Evans’ artistic life will not disappoint. . . . This biography affectionately reads like a lecture series, with professor Alpers nudging students to close-read the 143 black/white Evans photos conveniently placed at the book’s beginning."—Jean Bundy, Anchorage Press
"In Walker Evans: Starting from Scratch, art historian Svetlana Alpers explores the prominent 20th century documentary photographer’s work and creative process. Though one might usually consider photography to be a graphic art like painting, Alpers examines Evans’ love of text and the relationship between his images and works by writers including Flaubert, Baudelaire, and Faulkner, making the compelling case that literature is at the heart of his work. The book features 170 of Evans’s photos, but the main reason to get Starting from Scratch is to learn more about the artist’s way of seeing the world and rediscover his work with fresh eyes."—Photo Life Magazine
"[Alpers] takes a vivid, fresh look at the remarkable photographer whose well-known work on cities and on American rural poverty resonates today. But there is much more to see, and say. Many of the 143 plates will not be familiar, and Alpers interprets them in the context of international literature and art, inviting 'those who don’t know Evans [to] discover his greatness,' and ranking photographic achievement with literature and painting of the highest quality."—Harvard Magazine
"[Walker Evans] is finely tuned and thoroughly researched, carving out a unique space by focusing on Evans's lifelong emphasis on the art of seeing. . . . Highlighting groundbreaking cultural events, artists, and historical moments, including both world wars, the 1960s, and multiple cultural renaissances throughout Europe and the US, Alpers energetically writes about the people, places, and events that were continuous sources of influence and inspiration for Evans. . . . Highly recommended."—Choice
"This 213-page book provides depth and breadth about Evans’ work. Readers . . . who are curious about what drove Walker Evans to create, and to learn about what influenced him and what distinguishes him from other 20th Century photographers as it evolved will no doubt enjoy Walker Evans: Starting from Scratch. "—Caryn Hoffman, Picture this Post
"In this extensive and detailed biography . . . the reader is presented with a new perspective on Walker Evans’s work, rendering the presumed familiar unfamiliar in a decidedly nuanced and enjoyable way."—ARLIS/NA Reviews
"[A] learned, suggestive, and handsome work. Alpers studies Evans’s work employing the techniques used to critique paintings: by assessing how he framed his scenes, in the light of his printed statements and off-the-cuff remarks. Her most illuminating is the theme of detail. She focuses on what Evans focused on."—Allen D. Boyer, Key Reporter
"Insightful."—Stuart Mitchner, Town Topics
"Alpers’ book on Walker Evans begins, after a half title page, with reproductions of 143 of Evans’ photographs . . . a silently eloquent way to say: the pictures come first. . . . Alpers focuses on [Evans’s] profound connection to French culture, literary in the first place . . . and then photographic . . . to show how 'Evans always viewed his country as if from the outside and often with an ironic eye.'"—Barry Schwabsky, Tourniquereview.com
"In Walker Evans, it is clear that the full force of Alpers’s lifetime spent looking, thinking, and writing about art comes into play, supercharged by diligent, directed research. This diligence alone distinguishes her work from almost all other critical writing on Evans. Balanced, thoughtful, and comprehensive, this important book firmly locates Evans where he belongs, and understands him for what he is: a great American artist."—Jerry L. Thompson, author of The Last Years of Walker Evans
"What Alpers sees in Evans’s work is never less than startling. This American artist discovered himself in France, more by reading Baudelaire than looking at museum walls. Those images of Southern barbershops and sharecroppers’ faces, of junked cars and gullied fields, that we associate with the Depression? They speak of the world the Civil War made, from which we never escaped. Alpers draws on a lifetime of looking to catch Evans in the process of making one essential image after another. This isn’t the Evans we know already—in these pages his photographs have a new power to enthrall."—Michael Gorra, author of Portrait of a Novel
"Fueled by close looking, careful reading, and forthright interpretation, this highly original and thought-provoking book is a major achievement. Alpers allows us into the process of looking to such a degree that we feel as though we are experiencing Evans’s pictures in real time—that they are developing, as it were, before our eyes."—Richard Meyer, author of What Was Contemporary Art?
"Alpers counts Evans among the great artists and demonstrates, through this powerful book, how he is all of that, spark by spark, proof by proof. In her writing, there is the vivid sense of being jostled by an energy and commitment to her subject that can, at any moment, send her unfurling text wherever her instinct intuitively directs it."—Tod Papageorge, Walker Evans Emeritus Professor of Photography, Yale University School of Art