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Shelf is a regular column by Nicholas Weist about the most collectible, gorgeous and informative books in contemporary art.
Recently, republications of classic photography books are providing spectacular opportunities to get foundational texts into your library, without having to absorb first-edition sticker shock.
Perhaps no other book can be described as so unequivocally classic than Walker Evans’ 1938 American Photographs. While employed by the New Deal’s Farm Securities Administration (and various magazines), Evans traveled into the deep recesses of America between 1928 and 1937 to make a series of photographs. In doing so, he deservedly garnered a reputation for generously handling the minutia of American life, while eloquently depicting a landscape that would be forever altered by industrialization. They are pictures that helped catapult photography into the realm of high art. Consequently, for last year’s republication by the Museum of Modern Art (thankfully a facsimile of the first edition), the museum used their extensive holdings of original Evans photographs as reference material for a notably gorgeous print job.
Whereas Evans’ American Photographs quietly reflects on our nation’s storied past, Robert Frank’s The Americans is a raucous, ambivalent look at the country during another key moment in its history. Frank, a Swiss photographer, used a 1955 Guggenheim grant to travel across America and expose over 28,000 frames of film – edited down to 83 – that helped to put so-called “street photography” within reach of the canon. Frank’s unflinching portrayal of nationalistic zealotry and racial division still tugs as hard on the thinking American’s consciousness as it did in 1959, when The Americans was first published by Grove.
That first edition, which currently fetches for around $10,000, has been followed by several more. In fact it’s never been out of print for very long, and over the years, Aperture, Pantheon, and other publishers have made various incarnations – my copy is a 1993 version by Scalo, albeit with slight alterations to the Grove material. However, purists will be happy to find that the 2008 republication by Steidl, the only one currently in print, was made with Frank’s input and is closest to the original so far.
By 1976, Frank, Evans, and other photographers had managed to solidify the medium as an artistic tool. But one frontier remained. That year, the Museum of Modern Art produced an exhibition of William Eggleston’s photographs, and it was one of the most reviled in its history. The lurid color in his prints was modus non grata in the art world at that time, and critics were rabid in their dismissal. History, of course, was on the artist’s side, and the museum’s catalogue for the show, William Eggleston’s Guide, included a brilliant essay by John Szarkowski that has become a classic text on color photography.
In 2003, MoMA triumphed again with a facsimile of the first edition — this time using Eggleston’s original slides to make separations for their reprint. There can’t possibly be a better way to save $1,000 than adding a new edition of a seminal book to your collection.