By Tod Papageorge, 1981
Tod Papageorge has been Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in Photography at the Yale School of Art since 1979. In this insightful essay, prepared in conjunction with exhibitions that he curated for the Yale University Art Gallery in 1981, he described in which extend Walker Evans’ work influenced the renowned “The Americans” from Robert Frank.
The purpose of this monograph is to describe the influence of Walker Evans’ American Photographs (1938) on The Americans (1959) of Robert Frank. To do this, the photographs in the two books have been edited and yoked together in a series of comparisons. What follows, then, is an exercise in speculation, one born of love and respect. It is offered as a working idea rather than an assured truth, a reasoned pretext for returning to the two great books it examines. (…)
Many of the matched photographs reproduced here obviously, and remarkably, echo one another; they demonstrate that, to a significant degree, Frank used Evans’ work as an iconographical sourcebook for his own pictures. The photographs that make up the rest of the comparisons, however, more loosely resemble one another, since they have been paired to describe something less tangible than clear correspondences of subject-matter, and, because of this, have been formally matched on the basis of only minor visual similarities. In a general sense, these comparisons are meant to remind us that the true shape of influence is one composed of feeling as well as conscious recognition, and, more particularly, to suggest that Frank found in Evans’ work not only a guide to what he might photograph in America, but a vision of how he might understand what he saw here. On pages 40 and 41, for example, the plate-like space that both pictures delineate is less relevant to the purposes of this book than the common sympathy the photographs express for the harrowing sorrow of being black in this country. And while a tin relic and a flag (20, 21) may be difficult to reconcile as a comparison, they are here because, apart from being stunning photographs, they speak of a mutual skepticism – the Ionic column is crushed, the flag immense and torn – and of both photographers’ gift for symbol-making.
The problem of composing these less literal comparisons could have been approached by using pictures not found in American Photographs. Frank obviously knew the work that Evans had done from fixed camera positions in the streets of Detroit and Chicago in 1946-47; he also clearly knew the great series of subway portraits that Evans had completed by 1941, but did not release in book form for twenty-five years (Many Are Called, Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1966). Yet, while it is probable that Frank learned from all of Evans’ work, his debt to American Photographs is so profound that, by considering this one book, we can observe not only the fact of influence, but the way in which a brilliant young photographer embraced and comprehended a masterpiece.
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