Penguin’s John Steinbeck reissues feature Walker Evans Polaroids from 1973

For the covers of its new Modern Classics series of John Steinbeck’s works, Penguin used images that US photographer Walker Evans shot on a Polaroid SX-70

The new covers adhere to the redesign of the Modern Classics series which has been rolled out this year. Art Director Jim Stoddart updated his own 2007 design with a new livery, as Henry Eliot Creative Editor of Penguin Classics explained in a detailed post on the publisher’s website: “The back covers, spines, Penguin roundel and cover text have all turned a pale blue-green, a shade known as ‘eau-de-nil’, ‘water of the Nile’,” he wrote.

“This colour is a reference to the series’ original palette and its brief blue-green incarnation as Twentieth-Century Classics.” Fifty titles were selected to relaunch Modern Classics in 2017, including seven of John Steinbeck’s novels.

For the covers, Penguin Picture Editor Sam Johnson turned to the work of Walker Evans and, in particular, his striking series of 2,650 Polaroid pictures that he took in 1973, two years before his death.

Some of Evans’ most famous photographs, shot during the Great Depression for the Farm Security Administration (FSA), connected his work intimately to the struggles of American farming families in the 1930s – a time when Steinbeck was also writing some of his most celebrated works and addressing similar themes. In Dubious Battle, the the first of his ‘Dustbowl trilogy’, was published in 1936 and was followed by Of Mice and Men (1937) and The Grapes of Wrath (1939).

Having previously dismissed colour photography, it seems that Evans embraced the Polaroid SX-70 and looked anew at the America he had depicted throughout his life. For Johnson the connection with Steinbeck was obvious – but she was keen to come at the depiction of America from a different angle.

“The Steinbeck Estate were keen for us to look beyond the obvious for the covers,” she says, “and when we first mentioned Walker Evans they assumed they would be the black-and-white FSA-era photographs – amazing in themselves, but perhaps too expected.

“I proposed these colour Polaroid images because I felt they had the weight of heritage of an American master, but viewed slightly differently with an aesthetic that would hopefully appeal to the modern reader. Who doesn’t love a Polaroid?”

Johnson says that her original idea for using the Polaroids came from recalling having seen the series at a retrospective of Evans’ work she’d visited at The Met in New York in 2000 (the museum also holds the Walker archive). “You can see the way a picture editor’s mind works – well, mine anyway,” she adds, “– calling up a visual memory from 17 years ago for an idea!”

As varied as the images are, the Polaroid colour palette threads them together and Evans’ deft use of light and shadow ensures that, for all their immediate visual appeal, they retain a foreboding quality.

The John Steinbeck Penguin Modern Classics editions will be published on October 5 (£8.99 each). See penguin.co.uk

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