Gil Blank
Misc Fields
As perhaps the most awaited of this season’s crop of reissues, Many Are Called is indeed a landmark update to a very important body of work by one of photography’s most essential practitioners. Tightly edited and composed, it is a hallmark of the series format of photography. It consists of eighty-nine images of anonymous passengers in the New York City subway, shot unawares by Evans at various times in the late 30s and early 40s. Sixty years later, it seems to be not so much an encapsulation of the human pageant as of the particular conceits of modernist imagemaking that fostered such idealistic undertakings to begin with.  Viewed through contemporary eyes, it’s easier to see the legacy of blankness and the barriers to knowing so deftly exploited by current portraitists like Rineke Dijkstra, than it is to recognize any hazy mid-century notion of The Family of Man.


The original edition is something of a bibliophilic legend; over twenty years in the making, it suffered numerous hurdles to publication, came out in a small and intimate if somewhat compromised version, and has since become a jealously horded rarity. There is then a debt of at least pedagogical gratitude owed to Jeff Rosenheim, curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (which serves as custodian of the Evans estate), for bringing this project to fruition and making these images available to a wide audience, at a very reasonable price to boot. This is an indisputably elegant and finely crafted edition, one that takes great pains to hue as closely as possible to the original book’s integrity. It consists of the same number of prints, in precisely the same order and layout format. James Agee’s exquisite forward is intact, and so even are Evans’ frontispiece quotation and inscriptions. I would not be at all surprised to be informed that the type is identical.


Courtesy Yale University Press

What Rosenheim calls the few “modestly expanded” features however are  pivotal. The pictures are slightly larger. “The absence of a statement by the artist” remains, though presumably owing something to the fact that little more is to be quoted from the deceased. That did not, however, preclude the publisher from adding two additional written pieces, one pleasantly expository but not altogether necessary essay by Luc Sante, and one by Rosenheim himself that more directly addresses the occasion itself of republication. There is also a “plate-by-plate concordance including each work’s precise date and museum accession number”, the value of which beyond the didactic seems negligible and, to the editor’s stated aim of artistic coherency, entirely questionable. And lastly, there is the fact, simultaneously intriguing and complicating, that only two of the images were reproduced from Evans’ own prints, the rest having been generated by the considerably more subjective and variable practice of digitally scanning the photographer’s original negatives. Given the highly debated discrepancies between vintage and late prints, even when made at the hand of a photographer himself, the additional intervention of a technology that was never present during the artist’s lifetime at all brings this edition one more immeasurable step away from whatever the original one was.


The result is that the book now available becomes a splendid resource rather than an art work, a democratic revisitation. And therein lies what must certainly be the catch not only of this, but of all such reprints, that they are inevitably that, doppelgangers, not reissues, not further iterations of those original book-objects that in and of their physical selves were incarnations of intrinsic artistic worth, but facsimiles. They become not reincarnations of the thing, but indirect documents of their material and cultural history, in the form of very convincing approximations. Which is neither genuine nor dubious, but a rather modern and useful lesson in shedding our preciousness about the aura of authenticity. A volume like this forces an accounting of what it is about these photographs that matters. Is it the image itself—not its physical carrier, but its disembodied implication, the cognitive meaning and emotional resonance it imparts within us—or is it the snazzy box it comes in? Certainly the two can often be codependent, because a photograph is at its most elemental level a physical phenomenon, but just as the struggle to find rightness within any medium means questioning its form, so too does the central burden of such remarkable reprints remain where precisely within them we might locate the value—or even the necessity—of their creation.


© Copyright Gil Blank

Walker Evans: Many Are Called
Published by Yale University Press

Originally published in Issue magazine, Number 9, 2006