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Something Better, Or At Least Something Different

Posted in Discussions by Paul Turounet on September 16, 2007

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Walker Evans and Robert Frank: An Essay On Influence was an exhibition that took place from January 21 – March 15, 1981 at the Yale University Art Gallery, and explored the relationship and influence of Walker Evans’ book American Photographs (1938) on Robert Franks’ The Americans (1959). In addition to curating the exhibition, Tod Papageorge, Director of Graduate Studies in Photography at Yale since 1979, wrote the essay that appeared at the beginning of the exhibition catalog. The exhibition and catalog featured 50 photographs in which photographs of similar iconography and content made by Evans and Frank were paired together.

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Both books were bound in black (Evans’ in bible cloth, the cover of hymnals), and were almost the same size – American Photographs a bit taller, The Americans slightly longer, to accommodate the different shapes of their pictures. Evans’ book contained eighty-seven photographs, Franks eighty-three. And, of course, the titles of the two books – as well as the block layout of their title pages – echoed one another.

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.

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, an, 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.

As Harold Bloom asks in The Anxiety of Influence, “what strong maker desires the realization that he has failed to create himself?”

Bloom’s question could be countered, if not answered, by T.S. Eliot’s direct propositions: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.” Eliot’s position – according to which Frank may be called both a mature and a good poet – has the advantage of being closer than it seems Bloom’s is to the daily joys and emergencies of artistic practice, since it does not exclude the possibility of pleasure – whether the minor excitement of stealing something without fear of arrest, the deeper enhancement of loving a thing well enough to serve it, or the profound delight of making an object so free of previous authority that it can be called new.

But tangled with all of this is the dominating fact that Frank’s masterpiece was a book born of his love of another book, and that, with this – like Walker Evans – Frank has had to live with the memory of an overwhelming early triumph. As for us, we have his wonderful book, and, traced within it, the figure of a tradition.

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from Walker Evans and Robert Frank: Essay on Influence  .© Yale University Art Gallery, 1981

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This power and anxiety of influence of Walker Evans’ American Photographs and Robert Franks’ The Americans has challenged photographers following them down the road of the American vernacular scene, including Garry Winogrands’ 1964, William Egglestons’ Los Alamos, Stephen Shores’ American Surfaces and Uncommon Places, Joel Sternfelds’ American Prospects and Paul Graham’s A Shimmer of Possibility.

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Assignment

Prepare and present a digital presentation (PowerPoint or Keynote – minimum of 5 slides) that discusses your current work, working process and the relationship of your work within the context of influence.  Include the following discussion items in your presentation:

  1. Background context(s) that may be relevant to current work (previous work, personal history as well as historical, geographical, social and/or cultural contexts)
  2. Content of work (what is it about and/or the issues you’re seeking to address)
  3. Development and evolution of working process (conceptual development and aesthetic considerations)
  4. Photographer/Artist(s) work that reveals the possibility of pleasure for your own photographic practice (subject matter and/or their photographic sensibilities) – Include Images.  Optional – Other influences relevant to current work (personal experiences, emotional / psychological thoughts, literature, film, music, theater, current events…)
  5. Challenging these influences to make something better, or at least something different (problems and considerations of work)

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