A late night with Walker Evans: sequencing

I rarely struggle to sleep but I did last night – possibly my head churning with thoughts after a day out collecting images, followed by a level 3 tutor lead hangout. I was drawn to revisit Walker Evans’s American Photographs over a cup of lemon and ginger tea.

The book was originally published in 1938 and has been hugely influential on subsequent generations of photographers, including Stephen Shore. It is no frills photography, where subjects are photographed straight on and themselves banal. For me it conveys the experience of being in the places, what Gerry Badger has described as ‘thereness’. They are very still, contemplative works.

I was interested in what ideas I might glean for the next iteration of my own book (even if an ebook). The photos are printed on one side of the spread only and page numbers are on opposing pages, without additional text. Place and dates are listed after the photos, avoiding the distraction of words. The prints are not uniformly cropped, creating variety of layouts as pages are turned. Some are landscape format and others portrait. There is something about the positioning of the page that gives weight, lightness or breadth to the images. It is not completely consistent, with only the right margin strictly respected. Perhaps a layout from an age that predates the precision of digital design tools. Anachronistic? I noticed how my page-turning hand comfortable rested on the empty page while I viewed the image. I realised there is no turning hand to obscure images in ebooks – the only space needed is that to separate the image from what surrounds it. The ebook acts as a one-sided spread and the illusion of relationship to paper books through the ‘book’ word shouldn’t be held too tightly.

The book’s inside cover advises that the photographs were painstakingly selected and put in series by the photographer and they should be viewed in that order. The images flow through in different ways; groupings of similar content, connections between elements, and the form of the images. The end of a grouping is often marked by a discordant image as punctuation.

There is a quietness in the book that allowed me to become immersed in the photos. The book’s title is clear and unremarkable – they are American Photographs. Does anything else need to be said? The reader is left to realise the nuances.

I was left feeling that my ebook might include too many distractions from the photographs – do I need to include sound, just because I can and to compensate for the lack of materiality of an ebook. Would this additional material be better left for a website. Is my working title only tenuously attached through its connection to a single image. What about simply Leeds and Liverpool plus some subtitle. Do I really need to include more than one image on a page to emphasise their connection – does this just labour the point. The connection can be made between subsequent images and individual images left to breath quietly alone.

Just because we can do something with digital, we don’t necessarily need to do it. In the end the work should be left to speak for itself. Perhaps it is time to pull back from the experimentation and save it for another context. I’ll be spending time with other photo books (perhaps sited broadly within the landscape genre) and reflecting further in advance of A4.