One of the great qualities of the photograph is that it can exist in multiple copies. Unlike the painter, the photographer can reproduce an original, made from the camera negative. We might experience pictures by great photographers that carry the authority of the artist in a variety of far-flung places, as they find permanent homes in the archives of the world’s libraries and museums.
The same images, reproduced in ink, might travel further still. When the work of the photographer is printed for a book ink reproductions from original prints can reach far greater audiences. The book, unlike an exhibition, can become a permanent venue for the photograph. With few exceptions, most of us come to know the work of any photographer through the book. The traditional photograph (made in the darkroom) and its replica (reproduced in ink by a variety of means) have been joined since the early days of photography. In making a book the printer is charged with the difficult task of translating the descriptive powers of the camera by preserving detail and tone in a print with photographic character. While the form and meaning of the pictures belongs to the photographer, it is often the work of the printer that allows their message to truly spread.
A potent example of the union of photographs and print is Walker Evans’s American Photographs, first published in 1938. We can be sure that Evans understood the powers of the book, approaching the publication as both a means of exposure and as a permanent container for his pictures. American Photographs has gone in and out of print since it was first published, with a new edition appearing roughly once every twenty-five years. The methods used to produce the book have changed with each
printing and a careful study of the five editions of American Photographs provides a look into the development of printing technology over the past seventy-five years. With a new edition just published by the Museum of Modern Art, we might look closely at the physical history of Evans’s first and greatest book.
In its earliest years the Museum of Modern Art offered many firsts to Evans. The first photographs purchased by the Museum were views of Victorian architecture made by Evans in the early 1930s.1 An exhibition featuring thirty-nine of these photographs opened at MoMA in November of 1933 and marked the Museum’s first one-man show in photography.2 A few years later MoMA hosted its first retrospective of any photographer’s career with a survey of work by Evans.3
The exhibition Walker Evans: American Photographs was on view at MoMA for a seven-week stretch in the fall of 1938; it then left New York and traveled to another ten venues across the United States.4 Evans, it seems, was more interested in creating a permanent record with the book American Photographs than its temporary exhibition. According to an often-told legend, Evans hung the show in the single evening before it opened, working through the night.
Evans was heavily involved in the production of American Photographs, working closely with Frances Collins, the head of MoMA’s publications department, in determining every aspect of the book’s design. In its presentation American Photographs was spare, clean and without flourish, designed to eliminate any distractions from the photographs. For the binding, Evans selected Holliston Novelex, a black “Bible cloth.”5 He specified an off-white dust jacket that included the book’s author and title but lacked any photographic reproductions. The book itself was almost square, designed to best suit a collection of photographs of varying size, shape and orientation. For paper, Evans chose Warren’s Lustro Gloss, an off-white, clay- coated sheet.6
In the layout each photograph was situated on a page of its own, opposite a blank facing page. The book was divided into two sections with the first devoted mostly to portraits and the second to architecture. The titles of the pictures were withheld and instead each plate was numbered. A list of corresponding titles followed each of the two sections to further stress the visual language of the photographs. Most importantly, Evans labored over the sequencing of the photographs in close collaboration with his friend Lincoln Kirstein and together they created a series of images based on a graphic flow to unfold Evans’s message. Each picture suggested the next through subtle visual cues found in the graphic elements and symbols of the photographs.
The first edition of American Photographs was published in the fall of 1938 to coincide with the exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. The book was made using the letterpress halftone,7 which was the dominant technology for printing photographs in ink during the first half of the twentieth century. The halftone is a relief printing process that uses a coarse screen to break an original image into a grid of small dots. When printed in black ink, these small dots blend and trick the eye into perceiving tone.
To make the letterpress printing plate, the original was photographed through a glass halftone screen. The screen was ruled with a series of parallel lines set at right angles, resembling a wire-mesh window screen, which created a network of clear square apertures. Light reflected from the original print passed through the screen and was then recorded on film as small dots of varying size. After development the film negative was exposed by bright light to a copper plate coated with a light-sensitive gelatin. In the areas of the film where the original print was dark, the gelatin hardened marking the plate with dots that would become the raised printing surface. The plate was then rinsed to remove the unhardened gelatin and the exposed copper was etched.
In its use of a single color of ink and a coarse halftone screen the process was limited in its ability to replicate the continuous tonality of a darkroom print. Letterpress reproductions of photographs were most often made with a133-line screen8 and printed with one impression of black ink; such is the case with the first edition of American Photographs. The letterpress halftone was limited in its fineness to 150 lines per inch. Though a finer screen could generate smaller dots to better emulate the tones of a photograph, the dots produced in the highlight areas were in fact so small that they would be eaten away completely by the etching of the plate.9
Prints made by the letterpress halftone were not especially photographic. Printer Richard Benson writes that, “in general, the letterpress print was thin and rough, with weak blacks, attenuated tonalities throughout the scale, and the bad characteristic of losing detail in both light and dark areas of the picture.”10 At the time of the first edition of American Photographs there existed a handful of ink printing systems that could more accurately reproduce a photograph but prints made by these methods required much time, money, skill and patience. While imperfect in rendering a silver print the letterpress halftone was fast, cheap and reliable.
The Beck Engraving Company of Philadelphia etched the copper printing plates for American Photographs from Evans’s original photographs. The engravers at first struggled to generate plates that satisfied MoMA’s Frances Collins, their printer Joseph Blumenthal and Evans himself, but succeed in making workable halftones after several attempts.11 The plates then went to Blumenthal at the Spiral Press in New York for printing in an edition of five thousand copies.
Blumenthal was best known for his graphic work in typography and book design. In the years prior to American Photographs he completed commissions to design and print the first book of Robert Frost’s collected poetry and had been personally asked by President Franklin Roosevelt, a book collector, to design a multi- volume compilation of his letters and correspondence.12 Blumenthal had worked with the Museum and the Beck Engraving Company before. The Spiral Press had been contracted to print all of the Museum’s catalogs13 and in 1937 printed Beaumont Newhall’s Photography, 1839-1937 from plates made by Beck.14 It seems that Blumenthal approached his printing for MoMA with a workman’s mentality; the books he produced for the Museum are totally absent from his 1966 auto- bibliography The Spiral Press Through Four Decades.
In his printing for Evans, Blumenthal produced a set of reproductions that MoMA curator Peter Galassi described as “precise and superbly legible.”15 The printing is light and open, and markedly different in weight than Evans’s prints from the same period, which were often much darker. It is possible that Evans worked with the engravers to create lighter plates to ensure the reproductions would carry the overall detail of his photographs, easily buried in the shadow areas of the letterpress print.
Blumenthal succeeded in creating a rich black in the darkest parts of the pictures, a difficult task in printing the letterpress halftone. The dark areas of a halftone negative always carry a small white dot, even in areas that appear totally black in the original photograph. Benson writes that Blumenthal achieved the effect “by running the ink at the exact level necessary to fill in the tiniest of the shadow dots; this produces a perfectly satisfactory dark tone upon which the picture structure can be built.”16 Though difficult to practice well, the skilled printers and engravers enlisted for the production of American Photographs used the halftone to great effect, creating adequate prints that communicated the meaning of the original photographs.
Galassi, in his afterword to the 1988 edition, noted that some of the letterpress plates of the first edition had been altered from the original prints. “The plates of the 1938 edition were carefully, often extensively reworked by hand before printing. Selected areas of a number of plates were lightened or darkened, and other painstaking alterations were made.”17 The clearest examples of hand reworking are in small details that have been drawn in, and other cases in which irrational shapes have been blocked out. These changes correct images in which the letterpress halftone has dropped information or improperly rendered details. In Girl In Fulton Street, 1929 (Part One, No. 17), we find that the young woman’s cloche hat has been drawn in to create a solid shape. Prints of the same picture reveal some slight texture in the near-black hat, difficult to print in letterpress. More clothing is altered in Main Street Faces, 1935 (Part One, No. 39); a shirt pocket and the placket seams have been drawn in for the young man standing to the right. The faint lines created by stitches were most likely dropped when the plate was made. Again, the plate makers struggled to render shadow detail in Garage in Southern City Outskirts, 1936 (Part One, No. 25). Here, a roof has been filled in on a car docked in the shadows of the shop.
We find a blacked-out section in Roadside Stand Near Birmingham, 1936 (Part One, No. 35), where stretched chicken wire has been eliminated from a shadow area beneath a shelf of watermelons. Similarly, in Greek Temple Building, Natchez, Mississippi, 1936 (Part Two, No. 18), an odd reflection in the rightmost window has been masked in the printing plate. In the same picture, individual limestone blocks have been lightened in the printing plates. The variance in these blocks does not match any known print of the photograph.18 Though these alterations are insignificant to the meaning of the pictures the examples show specifically the limitations of the printing process used for the first edition. These same details would be restored, and properly rendered, beginning with the 1988 edition of American Photographs.


In 1962, under the direction of Monroe Wheeler, the Museum of Modern Art reissued American Photographs in an edition of 4,000 copies printed by Clarke & Way, Inc. of New York. The book had not been reprinted since its first release, and Wheeler dedicated the twenty-fifth anniversary edition to a new generation of Evans’s admirers. The second edition was made from the same letterpress plates used for the first, and the reproductions carried virtually the same impact.
Museum of Modern Art curator Sarah Meister detailed some of the changes to the layout and design of the second edition, which included “the addition of an image to the cover, a new typeface throughout, and the placement of titles across from each plate.” A different paper called Mead Black and White Dull19 was also used. It was both brighter in color and duller in surface than the paper in the first edition, resulting in pictures that had slightly less contrast. The second edition is distinguished as the last printed with Evans’s approval. Just a few years before his death, the Museum of Modern Art had plans to print the book again, but the project never came to be.
In 1971 John Szarkowski organized a career retrospective of Evans’s work for the Museum of Modern Art. The exhibition Walker Evans was accompanied by an eponymous catalog featuring work culled from Evans’s forty-year career. Szarkowki had planned to reissue American Photographs in conjunction with the retrospective but due to budgetary problems the publication was cancelled.20 The pictures selected for the survey catalog affirm the Museum’s plans; not a single picture from American Photographs was reproduced.
Walker Evans was the first book of Evans’s pictures to be printed in photo-offset lithography, a planographic process that reached maturity in the 1960s and quickly replaced the letterpress halftone as the dominant method for printing photographs in ink. Offset made improvements over letterpress printing, as the process was capable of printing from a much finer screen, and could more easily print multiple impressions of ink in perfect registration. When done properly, fine offset prints could accurately replicate a tonally seamless photograph.
Photo-offset lithography worked through the transfer of ink from a thin aluminum sheet to a rubber blanket, then from the rubber blanket to paper. While the old relief letterpress process required great pressure to transfer the image from the copper plate to paper, the introduction of the offset blanket allowed the ink to transfer to paper with minimal pressure. The soft transfer prevented the paper from being distorted, and made it possible to print multiple impressions in perfect registration. A double-impression process called the duotone was capable of closely rendering the tonalities of a silver print and would become a reliable method for fine photographic book work.
Offset printing plates were made using the halftone screen. Original silver prints were photographed through a ruled contact screen made from film (rather than glass plates used in the days of letterpress) and then recorded to another sheet of film inside a copy camera. Unlike relief letterpress plates, the lithographic plates were not etched but held on a smooth metal surface. These offset plates could print from much finer screens than those used for letterpress, and were often ruled to 200 or 300 lines per inch.
The Walker Evans catalog included 106 plates printed by Sidney Rapoport. By 1971 Rapoport had become an accomplished printer with a reputation for producing fine photographic books. Rapaport’s best work was printed in photo-offset lithography using the duotone process and for his work on Walker Evans he used a greenish-gray and a black ink; the printing is superb. Had the 1971 edition of American Photographs been realized it is likely that Rapoport would have been selected as its printer. We can only imagine how great the book would have been, with input and oversight from Evans and the skilled Rapoport making reproductions that were tonally accurate to the original work. A third edition was published just a few years later. However, it was printed without the approval of Evans, his estate or the Museum of Modern Art.


This third edition of American Photographs appeared in 1975, following the expiration of the copyright on the first edition. The East River Press21 , a New York publisher, quickly produced a paperbound edition using the 1938 edition as the source material. The new edition was printed in photo-offset but did nothing to take advantage of the capabilities of the process. The pages of the original book were photographed through a new screen and in the enlargement below we can see a loss of detail caused by the crossing of the original 133-line screen used to print the first edition and the new 150-line screen used to replicate it.22 The resulting prints are high in contrast, darker overall, and tonally rougher than even the original letterpress printing.23
The first edition of Evans’s book was made using a limited technology by a group of technically gifted printers and engravers for an artist with a demanding standard. The East River edition is a different affair, a quick facsimile of the well- crafted original. Though this third edition is a poor copy one could argue that it did some service to Evans and those interested in his work by bringing the book back into print. An official fourth edition, carefully printed in offset, appeared more than a decade later.


In 1988 the Museum of Modern Art again published American Photographs. For this edition new printing plates were made from original photographs from the first time since the book originally appeared in 1938. As before, the Museum enlisted the help of the finest technicians in the printing trades and hired master printer Robert Hennessey to make new plates from Evans’s original prints. Under the direction of curator Peter Galassi, the photography staff at MoMA set out to find the best prints available of the pictures included in the book. A wide range of photographs was compiled for the new edition24 , most of which were made by Evans himself, some at the time of the first edition, and others at various points later in his career. A few prints made by Jim Dow were also included; these were printed under Evans’s supervision for the 1971 retrospective at MoMA. Other prints were made specifically for the fourth edition, printed in the late 1980s from negatives in the Library of Congress.25
Taken together the prints varied in age, condition and printing style.26 It is worth noting that some of the difference could be credited to the photographer himself. Evans’s early prints from the thirties were much heavier than those he made later in his career. Richard Benson has suggested that the open printing style used for the first edition of American Photographs influenced Evans’s printing technique. According to Benson, the 1938 edition “can even be imagined to have influenced Evans’s way of thinking about photographs,” as his “later work seems to follow the example of the book.”27
The first edition was important to Evans in guiding his later work, and also to the Museum in determining the look of the fourth edition. The reproductions in the 1938 edition owed their character to Evans’s labor and his close collaboration with the printers, engravers and designers who produced his book. With prints that varied in appearance and in the absence of the artist, the Museum of Modern Art determined that the first edition of American Photographs would be the authority that guided the printing of the 1988 edition. In many respects it matches the original book as closely as possible. The cover design, layout, typefaces, binding and paper were developed and selected to resemble the original. The weight and printing style of the reproductions in the fourth edition were also based on the original and are closer in appearance to the first edition than to Evans’s original prints. To resemble the single- impression letterpress printing of the 1938 edition28 the staff at MoMA selected black and neutral gray inks for the 1988 edition.
For his reproductions Robert Hennessey made separations using two 300-line screens for duotone printing in black and gray inks. The advances in the printing technology of offset over letterpress are immediately evident in comparing the fourth with earlier editions. The pictures are tonal, sharp and full of detail. The offset printing restores uncountable subtleties captured by Evans’s camera that were lost in the letterpress and facsimile editions. Evident for the first time in any edition of American Photographs are textures characteristic of the medium of photography itself: ripples in window glass, tire treads, mortar, wood grain, stubble, freckles and broom straw. Despite the influence of American Photographs, a benchmark in the history of photographic books, the title again went of out print for more than twenty years.


In August of 2012 the Museum of Modern Art published a new, fifth edition of American Photographs. Continuing their commitment to Evans the Museum again involved a team of gifted technicians, working with the printer Thomas Palmer to make new separations and Massimo Tonolli at Trifolio in Verona, Italy to produce the book. This edition was again printed in duotone by photo-offset lithography using 300-line screens but was the first to be made by digital means. In the years since the fourth edition appeared, offset printing has become more refined and with the introduction of the computer also more consistent, repeatable and accurate29 .
Once more the Museum decided to base a new edition of American Photographs on Walker Evans’s original book. In its size, binding, type design and sequencing the fifth edition very closely matches the first. The paper used was an off-white coated sheet with a neutral finish called Phoenixmotion Xantur. Unlike the clay-coated paper used in the first edition, it has a softer feel yet it retains the visual qualities of a coated sheet. The inks used in the fifth edition are slightly warmer than those found in earlier printings of the book. In his printing Palmer used black and gray inks30 to create reproductions with a long, beautiful tonal scale that suggests the feel of the letterpress edition while also conveying the subtleties of Evans’s original prints.
Working from a variety of materials that included original photographs, copy photographs and scanned negatives Palmer matched the weight and appearance of the reproductions in the original letterpress edition. By working digitally Palmer was able to alter certain sections of the original photographs to imitate some of the handwork, rubbing and etching done by the printers and engravers of the first edition. The lightened limestone blocks of the Greek Temple Building were restored and other pictures were subtly reworked from their original state to mimic the versions found in the first printing.31 The reproductions of the fifth edition demonstrate some of the power of modern offset printing and its ability to precisely render an original photograph in ink. While made to match many of the physical elements of the first edition as closely as possible, the reproductions of the fifth edition are far superior in their beauty. Like the previous edition the printing is faithful to the letterpress original, but suggests Evans’s original silver prints better than ever before.
When first printed the Museum of Modern Art set out to make the best book possible with the dominant printing process of the time. In publishing each edition of American Photographs the editors at MoMA have been careful to honor the work of Evans’s hand in crafting the first edition while taking advantage of new possibilities in printing to show his work with greater clarity. It is fitting that this important book, made by an enduring American photographer, has been given such close attention over the past seventy-five years.


1. John Szarkowski, “The first photographs acquired by the museum for the collection were acquired in the spring of 1930, four or five months after the museum opened. They were Walker Evans photographs. In 1930, who was Walker Evans? He was just some penniless kid, nobody knew about him, he never had a one-man show at the Museum of Modern Art, nothing.” Quoted in Maren Stange. “Photography and the Institution: Szarkowski at the Modern.” Ed. Jerome Liebling. The Massachusetts Review. Vol. XIX. No. 4. (1978): 693-709.

2. Meister, Sarah. “A Note on the Seventy-Fifth Anniversary Edition.” American Photographs. Walker Evans. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2012. 201-204.

3. Ibid.

4. Keller, Judith. “American Photographs: Evans in Middletown.” Walker Evans. The Getty Museum Collection. Malibu, CA: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 1995.

5. AIGA Design Archives. “Walker Evans, American Photographs.”

6. Ibid.

7. I owe my understanding of the halftone process to Jacob Kainen and Richard Benson. For more on the halftone see: Jacob Kainen. “The Development of the Halftone Screen.” Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1952. Richard Benson. The Printed Picture. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2008.

8. Robert Hennessey. Conversation with the author. 28 September 2012.

9. Richard Benson. “Letterpress Halftone.” The Printed Picture. (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2008). 222.

10. Richard Benson. “Photography in Print.” The Book of 101 Books. (New York: PPP Editions, 2001). 285-292.

11. Frances Collins. A letter dated 4 May 1938 suggests that plates for the book were attempted at least three times. “New proofs came from Beck better than the first ones but still disheartening...Joe [Blumenthal] suggests that if you were to make new prints: as glossy as possible: they could probably do better.” Quoted in James Mellow. Walker Evans. New York: Basic Books, 1999.

12. Blumenthal, Joseph. The Spiral Press Through Four Decades. New York: Pierpont Morgan Library, 1966.

13. Joshua Chuang. “When the Messenger Is the Medium: The Making of Walker Evans’s American Photographs and Robert Frank’s The Americans.” Yale University Art Gallery Bulletin 2006. Photography at Yale. New Haven, CT: Yale University Art Gallery, 2006.

14. AIGA Design Archives. “Walker Evans, American Photographs.”

15. Galassi. “A Note on the Fiftieth Anniversary Edition,” 201.

16. Benson. “Photography in Print,” 289.

17. Galassi. “A Note on the Fiftieth Anniversary Edition,” 202.

18. Thomas Palmer first brought this example to my attention. The altered blocks are readily seen when comparing the 1988 edition with any earlier edition. The first three editions were made from the same printing plates (or copies thereof) and carry the example of the reworked limestone blocks. For the 2012 edition Palmer digitally lightened the blocks, working from an original print in which all of the blocks were evenly printed.

19. AIGA Design Archives. “Walker Evans, American Photographs.”

20. Belinda Rathbone. Walker Evans. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1995.

21. In my research I have only been able to turn up one other title published by East River Press, a reprint of Man Ray: Photographs 1920-1934. It was also published in 1975.

22. Hennessey. Conversation with the author, 28 September 2012.

23. Among other details buried in the facsimile edition is the disappearance of a peg leg, jutting into the right edge of the frame in Citizen in Downtown Havana, 1932 (Part One, No. 20).

24. The prints selected for publication were compiled from a number of institutions including MoMA, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Library of Congress, the Walker Evans Estate and the Gilman Paper Company. Peter Galassi. “Acknowledgements to the Fiftieth-Anniversary Edition.” American Photographs. (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1988.) 203. Even after his death it seems that Evans’s work was as scattered as it had been during his career. According to John Szarkowski, “[Evans] was a little like W.C. Fields was rumored to be about his money, keeping dollars in every bank in the U.S. Walker had these caches of negatives everywhere, and he would forget where they were, or claim to.” Rathbone. Walker Evans. (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1995). 281.

25. Peter Galassi. “Acknowledgements to the Fiftieth-Anniversary Edition.” American Photographs. (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1988.) 203.

26. Galassi. “A Note on the Fiftieth Anniversary Edition,” 201.

27. Benson. “Photography in Print.” 289.

28. Hennessey. Conversation with the author, 7 December 2012.

29. Thomas Palmer. Conversation with the author, 21 November 2012.

30. Thomas Palmer. Conversation with the author, 3 December 2012. The book was printed with a dense black and a gray made from half Pantone 425 and half Pantone 405.

31. Among other plates, sections of License Photo Studio, New York, 1934 (Part One, No. 1), Negro Barber Shop Interior, Atlanta, 1936 (Part One, No. 6) and Hudson Street Boarding House Detail, New York, 1931 (Part One, No. 43) were reworked from original prints to better match the appearance of the first edition. In these examples the versions printed in the first edition differed greatly from any print gathered for the production of the fifth edition. Palmer. Conversation with the author, 15 September 2012.

This article would not have been possible without the generosity of Sarah Meister at the Museum of Modern Art, Thomas Palmer, Robert Hennessey, Joshua Chuang at the Yale University Art Gallery, Richard Benson, John T. Hill and Carley McCready.



Eric Marth