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Thoughts on Photography

Tracing The Steps Of Walker Evans
By William Basta
Posted: 2021-05-10T20:56:00Z
I first became aware of Walker Evans’ photography in the Lehigh Valley years ago while reading a book by Michael Freeman titled “Fifty Paths to Creative Photography”.  A great book which I highly recommend, by the way.  In each of the fifty chapters he emphasizes a “path” to creativity with the point illustrated by the work of a photographer.  Chapter 17 was about juxtaposition and featured Walker Evans, specifically the photograph of Bethlehem Steel shot from St. Michael’s Cemetery in south Bethlehem, but more on that picture later.  After searching through other photography books, most notably “Walker Evans:  American Photographs”, I discovered a number of photographs taken during what must have been a brief visit in 1935 (in some books I have seen them referenced as being taken in 1936, but most say 1935).  I thought it would be interesting to not only recreate the photographs, but to stand on the spot where he must have stood some 85 years ago.  In other words, trace his steps.

There is no detailed account of the visit that I am aware of, but I am guessing that it began (or ended) at the Bethlehem Train Station between W. Lehigh Street and Sand Island, and ended (or began) as he crossed the Free Bridge in Easton.  And in between he wandered around South Bethlehem with his 8” X 10” large format camera.

If you compare the pictures of the Bethlehem Train Station Evans took in 1935 and mine in 2021 you can see the depot itself has not changed much.  To take the picture I was standing on the tow path on the opposite side of the canal.  It would make sense that Evans, out of convenience (just standing on the tow path), stood on the same spot.  However, after a careful comparison of the pictures I think he may have stood up slightly higher on the bank running along the path.  He may have had to stand on the bank to avoid having his 8" X 10" camera and tripod trampled over by a mule towing a barge.  Regardless, it is clear that the brush and trees on the station’s side of the canal have been left to grow unchecked since 1935.

From there Evans explored the south side of Bethlehem.  The next two photos to compare are looking down east 5th Street.  This road ends at St. Michaels Cemetery; 180 degrees from the direction the photo was taken.  Evans may have stopped to catch his breath after the climb up this steep hill, turned around and saw the row of houses leading the eye out over Bethlehem.  I am sure he knew it was well worth exposing one of the 8" X 10" glass plates he was lugging around with him!  There are enough landmarks remaining, church steeples mainly, that I am confident that I was within feet of where Walker Evans was standing.

This spot on east 5th Street is within 100 yards of the spot where Evans captured the image referenced in Michael Freeman’s book.  I don’t think Freeman could have picked a better image to illustrate his point of using juxtaposition on your path to creative photography.  Freeman described the more literal juxtaposition of the dark steel mills in the background, brighter houses in the middle and the sunlit cross in the foreground.  However, I prefer the more poignant juxtaposition of how in a single frame Evans captured where the immigrants of Bethlehem's south side lived, worked, and died.

In my "First Picture" I believe I was standing within feet of where Evans stood, but there is no longer a cross within the frame.  My initial thought was that he was further back, and the image was compressed with a much longer lens so it appeared to be where I was standing.  However, this could not be the case.  If you have ever been to St. Michaels Cemetery you know it is located on a steep hill.  If I were to step back just five feet the whole perspective would have been off.  I moved a little to camera left to capture a different cross to mimic his photo in my "Second Picture".

The final images are of the Free Bridge between Easton PA and Phillipsburg NJ, shot from the Easton side.  The Pennsylvania Railroad building is no longer there, and the owners of the large homes up on the hill have allowed the overgrowth and trees to take over the landscape, blocking their view over eastern PA, but it is otherwise unchanged.  I was using a 200 mm lens on a full frame camera and had it right up against the wall of the bridge keeper’s shack.  I think Evens was probably several feet over to the right, so I am assuming that the shack was built some time after 1935.

I discovered another accomplished photographer who found their way to St. Michael’s Cemetery in south Bethlehem PA.  Actually, a husband and wife, Hilla and Bernd Becher.  I have to assume that they were familiar with Walker Evans’ iconic photograph.  And like me they tried to find the spot where it was taken, but who knows.  The picture on the left was taken by the Bechers in 1986, and the one on the right by me in 2021.  The biggest difference, although maybe not obvious, is that Bethlehem Steel was still operating in 1986.  The last operating blast furnace, Blast Furnace “C”, went cold on November 18, 1995.

I enjoyed this project immensely.  Some of the pictures took several trips to get right, or at least what seemed right to me.  It wasn’t just finding the right location, but being there at the right time of day and finding the correct focal length as well.  It became obvious that Evans liked to use a long focal length and small aperture, most likely f/64 on his 8" X 10", to pack many layers of detail into his images.  I found a couple other pictures he took in the valley, but they were similar to these better-known images.  If I do find others, I will likely head out to do it again.  Or, an entirely different photographer's work in a different part of the state or country.  I encourage you to do the same.