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Sermon with a Camera

This is an eight-by-nine book of eighty-seven photographs on glazed paper. The pictures were taken in the Eastern part of the United States during the past seven years by a man named Walker Evans, as a record of what was in that place for Mr. Evans to see and what Mr. Evans saw there in that time.

In a work of art place is everything.

Evans’ photographs represent, as Lincoln Kirstein says in his notes to the book, a straight puritanical stare—though not entirely without humor. There is much in them strongly reminiscent of the early practitioners of the photographic art. The composition is of secondary importance in these clear statements. Their type of beauty permits little of that.

The book is in two parts, about evenly divided between portraits and architecture, the products and remains of a life that is constantly in process of passing. The range is from “Parked Car, Small Town Main Street, 1932,” to “Tin Relic, 1931”; and from “Alabama Cotton Tenant Farmer’s Wife, 1936,” to “Maine Pump, 1933.” They particularize, as Atget did for the Paris of his day. By this the eye and, consequently, the mind are induced to partake of the list that has been prepared—that we may know it.

The total effect is of a social upheaval, not a photographic picnic. But that’s not all. These are without question works of art having their own identity, their own flavor, their own breath by which they live for us—and without which we shouldn’t look at them past Sunday afternoon. They’re good and reward repeated examination.

I’m glad that Evans has promenaded his eyes about America rather than France in this case. We go about blind and deaf. We fight off convictions that we should welcome as water in the desert, could we possibly get ourselves into the right mind. The artist must save us. He’s the only one who can. First we have to see, be taught to see. We have to be taught to see here, because here is everywhere, related to everywhere else.

Of only one thing, relative to a work of art, can we be sure: it was bred of a place. It comes from an application of the senses to that place, a music, and that place can be the middle of the African jungle, the Mexican plateau, a Parisian whorehouse, a room where Oxford chippies sip tea together or a downhill street in a Pennsylvania small town. It is the particularization of the universal that is important. It is the unique field of the artist, and Evans is an artist.

It is ourselves we see, ourselves lifted from a parochial setting. We see what we have not heretofore realized, ourselves made worthy in our anonymity. “What the artist does applies to everything, every day, everywhere to quicken and elucidate, to fortify and enlarge the life about him and make it eloquent—to make it scream, as Evans does at times, or gurgle, laugh and speak masterfully when the occasion offers.

So here’s a book of photographs about America. It’s not the first, perhaps not even the best book of pictures of us, but it’s an eloquent one, one of the most fluent I have come across and enjoyed. The pictures are for the most part mild, but in spite of this, though always exquisitely clear in reasoning and in visual quality, they pack a wicked punch. There’s nothing oppressively “photographic” here, it isn’t a long nose poking into dirty corners for propaganda and for scandal, there are no trick shots, the composition isn’t a particular feature—but the pictures talk to us. And they say plenty.