WALKER EVANS: AMERICAN PHOTOGRAPHER
“Walker was the one of all the artists of the time who showed the common man in full dignity. His photographs make us worthy of our anonymity. This is why his vision of the thirties so haunts us—he’s the one who showed us as we would like to imagine ourselves, or our ancestors. Resourceful, decent, calm, in command, scrupulous.”
*William Carlos William
Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes, which ushered in the era of postmodernism in New York and other places, owe a debt to an obscure Walker Evans photo from 1929. (SIGNS 13) Royal Baking Powder Steps demonstrates the sardonic wit of early Evans. It’s also technically magnificent, and an early example of Evans’ search for what he called an “American vernacular.” Often thought of as a classicist, Evans defies simple categorization. One critic’s view: “anti-romantic, an attitude that emerges in his emphasis on the disappearance of the author into the work, and the thought that the picture should selflessly describe the state of affairs.” (Kozloff 114) Vanguard of postmodernism? Evans would likely enjoy this characterization, as it connects him directly to the non-subjective writing esthetic of Flaubert, whom he identified with. (Katz 360)
Although Walker Evans (1903-1975) studied literature and languages in college, early aspirations to become a writer faltered. He returned from a formative Parisian experience in 1927 with a restrictive dose of writer’s block, (possibly contracted while translating his idol Baudelaire). Still writing two years later, he vowed to “suck the dust out of chaos,” during a piece of short fiction called “Brooms.” His character decides to buy a vacuum cleaner (re: camera) to replace the broom (pen) with which he “swept bitterly.” (UNCLASSFIED 62). Looking for truth without, Evans found his new machine to be a satisfactory expressive outlet.
The young Evans was openly disdainful of the crass commercialism of Steichen, and the artistry of Stieglitz’ pictorial school. Of Stieglitz he remarked: “He was artistic and romantic. It gave me an esthetic to sharpen my own against—a counter aesthetic. But I respect him for some things. He put up a very good fight for photography.” (Katz 362) He conceded a lifelong antipathy toward the sentimental or romantic. “I’m concerned with man really, that’s why I’m not very interested in nature. I privately find it beautiful, but I don’t find it material for the camera. . . not my camera. And I’m rather bored with nature photography.” (Pakay)
Inspired by the non-painterly aesthetic of straight photography, Evans cites Atget’s photos of Paris, and the haunting “Blind Woman” of Paul Strand as early influences. He became preoccupied with his American vernacular, which art historian Beaumont Newhall calls the “American form and the American people.” (Newhall 238)
“A document has use, whereas art is really useless,” he once said. (Katz 362) “The documentary artist does what he can not to change (actuality) spiritually. He tries to add nothing to it: no ideology, no polemic, no extrinsic excitement, no razzmatazz technique.” Insistent nonetheless that a good photograph results in a “transcendence” of its subject, Evans did as much as Stieglitz and Co. to bring artistic merit to their medium. His photographs of churches and storefronts, the folk art of signs and billboards, and people in the streets demonstrated“a sensitivity and flair” which lifted his images above the work of other documentarists of the era. (Newhall 238) Poets enthused about his “finding corroboration in the poets voice.” (Pakay)
Evans most influential and renowned work was done during the 1930’s and early 40’s. His prints of nineteenth-century New England architecture, displayed in 1933 at the newly formed Museum of Modern Art, first brought prominence. Shot with a large format camera (6 1/2 x 8 1/2 inches), the images were revolutionary in their clarity. Influential art curator and publisher Lincoln Kirstein, a friend of Evan’s, wrote a glowing review to announce the show: “Evan’s style is based on moral virtues of patience, surgical accuracy and self-effacement. In order to force details into their firmest relief, he could only work in brilliant sunlight, and the sun had to be on the correct side of the street. . . many of the houses seemed to exist in an airless nostalgia for the past to which Edward Hopper in his noble canvases pays a more personal tribute.” (Keller 11)
Yet Evans hated the very word “nostalgia,” and was moving in circles well outside of Hopper’s orbit. The Great Depression had become the defining influence in all walks of American life. A sense of social realism was influencing artists in all mediums. Few American artists—most notably Hopper, Georgia O’Keeffe, Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton—remained insulated from the stresses of the Depression, and continued to produce personal, inspired work. (Marshall 537) Many artists were turning toward socialist ideals for inspiration. The same year that Evans’ work was being exhibited in New York, Diego Rivera was unceremoniously booted out when his portrait of Lenin outraged the patrons of his Rockefeller Center mural. Evans, who had photographed Rivera, kept his head above the fray. Choosing to avoid both socialist activism and “establishment patterns,” Evans’ interest in the leftist politics of the day was limited to his search for “the truth.” (Pakay) This search led him to Cuba, to produce a series of photographs depicting Cuban life under the thumb of American Imperialism, on the brink of revolution. Published in the last pages of Carleton Beal’s book, The Crime of Cuba, Evans work is a mixture of dramatic architecture and canny street photography.
Documentary photography emerged as a valuable propaganda tool. The great picture magazines were on the horizon, as the black and white photo was fast becoming an integral part of America’s self-image. In 1935, Roosevelt’s New Dealers turned to social photographers to bring the harsh realities of the Dust Bowl to public notice. Walker Evans became one of the first photographers hired by Roy Stryker’s Resettlement Administration, later known as the Farm Security Administration. Using an 8x10 camera, he traveled to the South and photographed the streets and storefronts of small towns, billboards and automobiles. Though his choice of subject matter was often squalid, his interpretation was “always dignified.” (Newhall 238) He gradually frayed Stryker’s nerves. With his aloof artist’s mien and relatively small output, he was seemingly unconcerned with the beaurocratic demands of a government position, but was allowed tremendous leeway. To the average viewer, his work was accepted as a staid and listless version of the more heroic propaganda being produced. More sensitive viewers detected the beauty of his images, and this included his boss at the FSA. (Stott 273)
Evans most enduring images were made in Alabama in1936, when Fortune magazine assigned the photographer to accompany his best friend, writer James Agee, to do an article on an average family of tenant farmers. A dream assignment for both, they spent far more time down south as they were supposed to. Agee’s prose was far too anti-establishment for the magazine’s usual condescending approach to the subjects of their “Life and Circumstances” series, and was rejected. (Stott 262) Finally published as a book in 1941, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men challenged the legitimacy of virtually every institution involved in both the lives of their subjects and the publication of the material, including the authors themselves. It was initially dismissed as too personal, radical and rambling. Besides, it came too late-- the Depression was waning, and Americans were preoccupied with war in Europe. The lives of three cotton farming families didn’t seem as important as it had three years earlier.
It was not until the 1960’s, when it became a cult classic among civil rights workers, that the postmodernist perspective of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men would be appreciated. Now considered a classic, critic Warren Susman wrote that it “might be the quintessential document of the public culture of the 1930s, capturing in its haunting integration of photographs and prose the very essence of the interrelationship of that decade’s governing tensions between sight and sound, art and poetry, and the individual and the community.” (Lucaites 269-70) Evans’ portraits of three tenant families, and their environs, were far more objective than his partner’s writing. They still stand as one of photography’s most analyzed achievements. In a radical departure from the norm, the images were grouped in the front of the book, in front of the title page itself. They were presented without a single word of explanation. They were, wrote Agee, “not illustrative. They, and the text, are coequal, mutually independent, and fully collaborative.” (Newhall 246) A 1942 review of the book by Lionel Trilling commends Evans’ “perfect taste, taking that word in its largest possible sense to mean tact, delicacy, justness of feeling, complete awareness and perfect respect.” (Stott 270)
In 1938, three years before the publication of Famous Men, Walker Evans had become the first photographer to be given a one-person show at the Museum of Modern Art. The exhibition was accompanied by the book Walker Evans: American Photographs. Ironically, no Pictoralist photographer had enjoyed the honor bestowed upon the 35-year-old Evans.
In 1940, the photographer undertook a complete departure. Abandoning the contemplative large format camera and tripod approach, he went underground. With a Contaxt 35mm camera hidden under his coat, and a shutter release cable in his pocket, he rode the subways of New York City, covertly recording candid portraits of the passengers. As Evans himself put it, his aim was to put into practice the purity of the “recording method” by photographing a series of people who would unconsciously come “into range before an impersonal fixed recording machine during a certain time period.” (Keller 184) Published in 1966, this body of work was a forerunner to the postmodern street photography of Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, Garry Winongrand and others. Then again, the photos Evans made in Cuba and the southern United States in the 1930’s should be thought of in the same way.