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Walker Evans

Text from John Szarkowski, introduction to "Walker Evans" (Museum of Modern Art exhibition, 1971; Out of print, ISBN 0-87070-312-9

WALKER EVANS made his first serious photographs in 1928, at the age of twenty four. His attempt to become a photographer seems to have been almost a willful act of protest against a polite society in which young men did what was expected of them. His own background and education would seem more likely to have produced a broker, or a publisher, or perhaps an advertising executive, which his father had been.

Evans was brought up in the proper Chicago suburb of Kenilworth, where he enjoyed the temporal comforts allowed by modest affluence, and learned to play a moderately competent game of golf. When his parents separated he moved to New York with his mother, and continued his education at Loomis, Andover, and Williams. He enjoyed Andover; there he discovered literature and first entertained the idea of being a writer himself. He found Williams no challenge. After a year of free and wide ranging reading in the library he dropped out and returned to New York, where he lived with his mother and worked as a night attendant in the map room of the Public Library. In 1926 he went to Paris, where he was an auditor at the Sorbonne. He also read Flaubert and Baudelaire, saw the paintings of the School of Paris, and visited Sylvia Beach's bookshop, where he occasionally saw but never dared speak to James Joyce.

When Evans returned to the United States in 1927 he found himself out of sympathy with the aims and the style of the American establishment. He resented both the American's preoccupation with money and the fact that he had none of his own. He resented the smug self satisfaction of a nation dedicated to business, and its tolerant lack of interest in his own literary and artistic concerns. Doubtless he also resented his own anonymity. In broad outline he was perhaps a conventional, if well groomed, bohemian.

In 1928 he acquired a vest pocket camera, and decided, almost arbitrarily, and out of a frustration fed by a series of formless and temporary jobs, to become a photographer. He had only a modest knowledge of, and a very limited respect for, the medium's achievements. His immense respect for good writing had on the other hand effectively blocked his literary ambitions. Photography was something he thought he could do, and something that he would make intellectually estimable.

If Evans was in some ways a conventional bohemian, he was also a young man of high ambition. He began as a photographer by challenging in his own mind the two most conspicuously successful figures in the field: Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen. As it then seemed to Evans, Stieglitz was deplorable for his artiness, and Steichen for his commercialism: each sin a matter of paying homage to values other than the free exploration of the truth. These judgments were unfair, as Evans later understood and admitted; nevertheless they served the purpose of clarifying the options that remained open for Evans, and of supplying the energy that comes with belligerence.

After the crash of 1929, resisting the temptation of commercialism was not difficult. In 1931 Evans did one or two advertising assignments, hated them, and refused to pursue the matter. The question of artiness was a more subtle issue. The term is an artist's rather than a critic's word, and its meaning is generally expressed by the inflection of the voice. One might however hazard a tentative definition: artiness refers to an exaggerated concern for the autographic nature of a personal style.

In spite of misgivings, Evans in 1929 did visit An American Place to show his work to Stieglitz. The visit had been instigated by an acquaintance of Evans, in the conventional hope that the blessings of the old man might somehow advance the career of the young one. Evans remembers Stieglitz as tired and preoccupied, and his attention to the pictures as dutiful. When he had looked at the last print he rose, sighed, and said that the work was promising, and that Evans should continue photographing. Evans made a proper response, and left. During the remaining sixteen years of Stieglitz's life, the two did not meet again or correspond, nor is there evidence that Stieglitz again took cognizance of Evans' work.

The meeting was not a success. Nevertheless, considering the perspectives (and the egos) of the two principals, it is to their credit that the occasion was polite if not productive.

In 1929 Stieglitz was at the height of his powers as an artist, and at the height of his influence as a prophet and philosopher. Harold Clurman wrote later that Stieglitz's work "at this time becomes virtually majestic not only by an unsurpassable perfection of statement, but through a vision of absolute grandeur, a vision of a life and death combat."' The fundamental romanticism and heroicism of Stieglitz's thought had in fact remained constant during his working life, although its expression evolved progressively toward a more intense and economical form. Evans, in contrast, had already set for himself the goal of an art that would seem reticent, understated, and impersonal.

Having rejected the two great models of tile time, what example could Evans follow? In all fifty issues of Stieglitz's great periodical Camera Work he found only one picture that deeply moved him: Paul Strand's Blind Woman of 19 15. But there was another kind of photography that was so plain and common, so free of personal handwriting, that it seemed almost the antithesis of art: the kind of photography that was seen in newspapers and newsreels, on picture postcards, and in the windows of real estate dealers. Perhaps this blunt and simple vocabulary could be used with intelligence, precise intention, and coherence: with style. It is possible that Evans had read and remembered this advice from Flaubert: "An artist must be in his work like God in Creation, invisible and all powerful; he should be everywhere felt, but nowhere seen. Furthermore, Art must rise above personal emotions and nervous susceptibilities. It is time to endow it with pitiless method, with the exactness of the physical sciences."

Shortly after returning from Paris, Evans had become a favorite of Muriel Draper, writer and saloniste of intelligence, wit, and discrimination. Among those whom he came to know at her house was Lincoln Kirstein, still an undergraduate at Harvard and already a force in the re focusing of American cultural life. In the decade that followed, Kirstein exerted a considerable influence on Evans' thought and career. Recalling his early relationship with Kirstein, Evans recently said: "Oddly enough, what happened was that this undergraduate was teaching me something about what I was doing it was a typical Kirstein switcheroo, all permeated with tremendous spirit, flash, dash, and a kind of seeming high )inks that covered a really penetrating intelligence about and articulation of all aesthetic matters and their contemporary applications ... The man was essentially explaining to me what I was doing in my work. It was immensely helpful and hilariously audacious."

In the same years, Evans met Hart Crane and Ben Shahn; beginning about 1931 he and Shahn shared a Greenwich Village house for perhaps two years, and during one summer they worked together on Cape Cod. A little later in the Village he and James Agee also became friends a relationship that perhaps proved as important to Agee's art as to Evans'. The major influences on Evans during his early photographic career were intellectuals, writers, and painters; it would seem that the one living photographer whom he awarded a grudging respect was Ralph Steiner, whose work of the twenties did anticipate in some respects the later work of Evans.

It is Evans' recollection that in these years he lived without money. If not quite literally true, the remembrance is perhaps not far from the fact. After returning from Paris he had taken a job as stock clerk in the brokerage house of Henry L. Doherty; he had even managed to get a job there for Hart Crane, who kept it less than a month before leaving in an alcoholic explosion. Evans himself was bitterly unhappy on Wall Street, and left it before the crash of 1929, with no prospects. In February 193 1, Kirstein wrote in his diary: "Over to 14th St. and Fifth Ave. to call on Walker Evans, who lives with his German friend Hans Skolle in a particularly depressing penurious hole in the wall; how they both look so clean is a constant mystery to me. Their poverty is really so sad, always implied but never mentioned."

The same month Kirstein suggested that Evans come with him and John Brooks Wheelwright to photograph the Victorian houses of the Boston area Victorian architecture at that time being an unexplored mine of great interest to Kirstein. The project was executed during the spring of the year, and was evidently more complex than Kirstein, at least, had anticipated. To a bystander, the collaboration might even have had comic aspects. Kirstein noted that "the process technically was rather complicated even from the actual sighting, clicking, etc. of the camera itself. The sun had to be just right and more often than not we would have to go back to the same place two or even three times for the sun to be hard and bright. I felt like a surgeon's assistant to Walker, cleaning up neatly after him, and he a surgeon operating on the fluid body of time." And also, "Walker Evans ... seems perpetually bored ... I find it impossible to bully him by rushing him or telling him just what to do." Evans on the other hand did feel both rushed and bullied; it seemed to him that Kirstein expected the building to surrender instantly on demand its deepest secrets to Evans' camera. When the project was finished it seemed to Kirstein far better than he had dared hope; for Evans, only a small handful of the pictures met his personal standards.

Those standards were both exacting and original. He thought of photography as a way of preserving segments out of time itself, without regard for the conventional structures of picture building. Nothing was to be imposed on experience; the truth was to be discovered, not constructed. It was a formulation that freed Evans' intuitions, and saved him from too solicitous a concern for the purely plastic values that were of central importance to modern painters. His first occasional successes had seemed to him almost gifts the product not entirely of his own intention but of a force that had chosen him as a vehicle. From these pictures he had developed an increasingly conscious sense of the new kind of art that photography might become. By 1930 he was working with confidence and conviction. That year he told Kirstein that the possibilities of the medium excited him so much that he sometimes thought himself mad.

Evans' evolving style rested on two seemingly contradictory tenets. One was an uncompromising acceptance of precise and literal photographic description. The other was a faith in the validity of his intuitions. In defining his subject no theory or reasoned procedure could help; knowledge and sensibility must yield a single response. James Thrall Soby, who sought out Evans as a teacher in 1933, wrote later that he soon came to know in general terms what kind of subject matter would interest Evans. "But I never knew and do not to this day what made him decide what to encompass in the screen of his camera, from what distance, with what exploitation of the daylight and of the imponderables of plastic balance. These were problems he resolved with hypnotic certainty. The result was an imagery unmistakably his own."

As Evans remembers his thought of the time, he wanted his work to be "literate, authoritative, transcendent." The photographer must define his subject with an educated awareness of what it is and what it means; he must describe it with such simplicity and sureness that the result seems an unchallengeable fact, not merely the record of a photographer's opinion; yet the picture itself should possess a taut athletic grace, an inherent structure, that gives it a life in metaphor.

It is possible to get the impression that the friends of the young Evans did not always understand him; or that they understood him but harbored a nagging suspicion that he did not understand them; or that they had not decided if they understood him, but were not quite willing to forego his company, although it was sometimes aggravating, half enchanting, and subtly, intangibly patronizing, in the manner mastered only by the educated poor. One friend noted that Evans' undeniable magnetism was continually at half voltage flickering, lethargic, perhaps teasing; possibly, the friend thought, he was actually undernourished. Or perhaps he was immobilized by the role of spectator the photographer's role. Perhaps the best photographers in their best years come to resemble their unexposed film passive, unprejudiced, patient, waiting for the revelation that will open the shutter. Muriel Draper spoke to Kirstein of the subtle and powerful influence that Evans exerted on their group, of the mysterious quality that he projected, knowingly or otherwise.

Evans lived precariously and worked prodigiously. Infrequent small assignments, and the interest of friends, made it possible to work, and occasionally to travel. Ernestine Evans (no relation) secured for him the job of making photographs for Carleton Beals's book The Crime of Cuba, which Evans did not find time to read. Kirstein commissioned him to photograph the School of American Ballet. In 1934 he photographed for The Museum of Modern Art the contents of its exhibition "African Negro Art." In 1935 he went to the American South to photograph ante bellum architecture for a book that never materialized. More often than not, what seemed small opportunities were made the occasion for important works.

Although the photographs reproduced in the present book span a period of some forty years, forty two of the one hundred pictures were made during an eighteen month period beginning late in 1935. Almost half of the plates in Evans' American Photographs and all of those in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men were made during the same year and a half, and this total by no means exhausts the work of first quality done during this astonishing creative hot streak. The period in question represents the first time in Evans' life as a photographer (and for some years following, the last time) during which he was able to concentrate on his work with the assurance of a regular income.

These were the months of Evans' service with the photographic unit of the Resettlement Administration, later called the Farm Security Administration. This small group of photographers achieved what was probably the outstanding success of all the creative make work projects of the Depression period.

To the degree that the FSA photographic group (euphemistically called the Historical Unit) had a coherently conceived function, it was to make pictures that would explain and dramatize the plight of the rural poor to the urban poor and thug help preserve the tenuous coalition which had brought the New Deal to power. Its theoretical purpose was thus by implication political, but to the photographers in the field it was an opportunity to make true photographs, away from the carping help of editors or clients, and even away from the advice of bureaucrats.

The project was administered by Roy Stryker, former economics student of Rexford G. Tugwell at Columbia University, who was summoned in 1935 to rejoin the older man in Washington. Neither Stryker nor Evans was the easiest of men, and their relationship was frequently a difficult one. Evans felt that it was his work, and his ideas (with those of Ben Shahn and Ernestine Evans), that had been appropriated to form the style and the sense of purpose of the unit, and there was considerable truth, as well as a touch of paranoia, in this position. Stryker admitted years later that Evans' work and thought, in the early days of the project, had greatly expanded his sense of what photography could be; nevertheless he could not quite bring himself to be comfortable with the man. Evans was not, in Stryker's terms, a warm person. In addition, Stryker thought of the project as a group effort, while Evans knew that artists do their important work alone. Stryker thought (much of the time) that the unit's function was to help reform the ills of the country, and Evans thought that an artist's function was to describe life. Stryker thought that the meaning of the pictures was clear, and Evans found the best of them inexhaustibly mysterious. Even worse, Stryker was an extroverted, outspoken, hard driving optimist, a latter day populist, while Evans was an introverted, ironic, skeptical aristocrat. When the unit faced a budget reduction in 1937 it is not surprising that Evans was the one to be cut loose.

In the following year a major exhibition of Evans' work was shown at The Museum of Modern Art, accompanied by the monograph American Photographs. The exhibition and book were widely and seriously and for the most part sympathetically reviewed. Most critics, sympathetic or otherwise, characterized the content of the work with words like wretchedness, disintegration, waste, chaos, decay. John William Rogers said that the pictures "testify the symptoms of waste and selfishness that caused the ruin in our civilization."

It was, and is, supposed that Evans' work was basically concerned with the causes of social reform - presumably because his pictures often dealt with humble people and their works. But if his subjects were humble, they were almost never ordinary; it was above all quality that he demanded of them. His idea of quality was not a sentimental one, and could not be reduced to hortatory slogans. The subject got no credit for being either grand or modest, esoteric or vulgar, old or new. It got credit only for being good: meaning full of the record of life, or failure, or promise, or style. Evans was concerned with purifying not institutions but experience.

The most perceptive of his critics understood this. Thomas Dabney Mabry wrote that the work possessed "a power which reveals a potential order and morality at the very moment that it pictures the ordinary, the vulgar, and the casually corrupt." In what seems today the most astonishingly just explanation of the work, William Carlos Williams said: "It is ourselves we see, ourselves lifted from a parochial setting. We see what we have not heretofore realized, ourselves made worthy in our anonymity."

Lincoln Kirstein's essay in American Photographs appraised the work in terms which perhaps seemed extravagant then, but which today seem both bold and measured: "Compare this vision of a continent as it is, not as it might be or as it was, with any other coherent vision that we have had since the war. What poet has said as much? What painter has shown as much? Only newspapers, the writers of popular music, the technicians of advertising and radio have in their blind energy accidentally, fortuitously, evoked for future historians such a powerful monument to our moment. And Evans' work has, in addition, intention, logic, continuity, climax, sense and perfection."

Evans abhorred artiness, for it was the substitution of aspect for fact; but the subject matter of his own work was very of ten a kind of incipient art: the promising beginnings and honorable failures and fragmented shards of an American sensibility, which if respected might someday rise up to become a coherent 'and persuasive style of life and value. As Le Corbusier had attempted to reject the models of the grand tradition, and had gone to the grain elevator and the airplane and the hardware catalogue for the beginnings of a new architectural vocabulary, so Evans rejected the accepted successes of picture making, and began again instinctively with the nourishment that he could find in hand painted signs, amateur buildings, the humbler varieties of commercial art, automobiles, and the people's sense of posture, costume, and design.

It has been suggested that Walker Evans (or Eugene Atget, or photography in general) was the father of those tendencies which flourished in painting around 1960 under the label of Pop Art. It would in fact be difficult to imagine either the aspect or the substance of this art coming into existence without its photographic precedents. However if one compares the pictures of Evans to later Pop paintings of similar iconography and design, the differences seem more important than the similarities. The descriptive and allusive complexity, the richer ambiguity, the reticence of Evans' pictures result not in parody but in mystery.

Although Evans was in Paris at the time when Eugene Atget's work received its first limited public attention, he was not then interested in photography, and he did not see Atget's work until about 1930 in New York, when it came as a confirmation of his own intuitions. It was probably about the same time that he first looked with attention at the work of the photographers of the American Civil War. Lincoln Kirstein, whose given name reflected his own family's remembrance of that war, had preserved his grandfather's collection of photographs of the conflict.

William Ivins, Jr. claimed that the only sensible way to read history was to read it backwards. In the present case it is perhaps true that our appreciation of Atget and the Brady group owes as much to our knowledge of Evans' work its that work owes to their earlier example. Without doubt, Evans' pictures have enlarged our sense of the usable Visual tradition, and have affected the way that we now see not only other photographs, but billboards, junkyards, postcards, gas stations, colloquial architecture, Main Streets, and the walls of rooms. Nevertheless Evans' work is rooted in the photography of the earlier past, and constitutes a reaffirmation of what had been photography's central sense of purpose and aesthetic: the precise and lucid description of significant fact. That Evans did not in the beginning know the work of Atget, or of the half dozen men who were then called by the generic name of Mathew Brady, is not important; there were hundreds of others who used photography in a similar spirit. (Atget himself differs from many other excellent photographers of his time because of the quality of his eye and mind, not because of the novelty of his conception.) The basic vocabulary and function of undiluted photography were universally visible for all to see, its exceptional use demanded only an exceptional artist.

The tracing of influences in photography is at best a perilous business. The modern photographer, like everyone else, is bombarded by a continuous flood of camera images an assault on his eyes so massive and chaotic that he often does not himself know which pictures have left a residue of challenge in his mind. The influence of an exceptional photographer works less through his pictures' first impact than through their staying power: their ability to implant themselves like seeds in a crevice of the mind, where the slow clockwork of germination begins.

To most photographers in the late thirties, the work of Walker Evans probably seemed not radical, but idiosyncratic. In some ways his pictures seemed willfully old fashioned. At a time when faster lenses and films and shutters allowed photographers to record ever thinner slices of life, Evans' pictures were as still as sculpture I While the new miniature cameras were spawning an unending stream of bird's eye and worm's eye views, Evans worked insistently from a human's eye level. While artificial lighting equipment grew continually more sophisticated and seductively ingenious, Evans preferred the light that the sun, or chance, provided. While the new picture magazines rewarded photographers who recorded the exotic, the charming, the topical, the glamorous, and the shocking, Evans interpreted what was ubiquitous and typical.

In time the slick professional performances and the tortuous amateur novelties that had filled the pages of the period's photography annuals faded mercifully from memory. Twenty years later, the photography of the thirties was remembered for a small handful of artists whose work and thought had remained in the mind. Of these few, none has had an influence deeper than Evans, nor one broader in reach: the work of such disparate Younger photographers as Robert Frank and Harry Callahan (and in turn, the work of their own photographic descendants) is marked by Evans' earlier achievement. His influence, moreover, has been of a variety that has produced no, or few, acolytes; his work has seemed most useful to those with independent minds.

Evans worked at a slower pace in the years after American Photographs. In 1943 he joined the staff of Time magazine as a writer, and two years later he transferred to Fortune as writer and photographer. Predictably, the environment of group journalism was not a wholly sympathetic one to an artist as stubbornly self directed as Evans. He recently remarked that "in those days there was a certain satanic naiveté in the very top editorial direction of Time Incorporated, perceptible only from below: intelligent, gifted employees were expected to work hard and long hours under crushing pressure at many tasks no man with a mind could put his heart into." Evans did maintain a remarkable degree of independence at Fortune, but it was perhaps an independence purchased at the price of that continual vigilance which in itself frustrates free expression. Between 1945 and 1965, when he retired from the magazine, Evans produced some forty portfolios and photographic essays, often self assigned and with his own accompanying text. The pictures made for Fortune exhibit the clarity and intelligence that are the essence of the Evans style. It must also be said that they often lack the sense of fierce conviction that identifies his best work. Evans at his best convinces us that we are seeing the dry bones of fact, presented without comment, almost without thought. His lesser pictures make it clear that the best ones had deceived us: what we had accepted as simple facts were precise descriptions of very personal perceptions.

If Evans' best later work has been produced at a slower and more irregular pace, it has nevertheless been profoundly rewarding when it has appeared. In 1938 and 1941 Evans made his secret series of anonymous subway riders. This collection constitutes a kind of virtuoso piece, in which the photographer knowingly sacrificed all of his basic controls except one. To make these pictures by the feeble light of the subway cars, Evans sat in what he later called the swaying sweatbox for hundreds of hours, riding to nowhere, with the lens of a Contax camera peering from between two buttons of his topcoat, and his eyes focused on the bench opposite. He had to forego the freedom to choose his angle of view, the control of precise framing, the selection of light, the free choice or direction of his subjects. All that remained was the freedom to say yes or no to squeeze the cable release hidden in his sleeve, or not. The almost absolute lack of "purely visual" interest in this series provides an appropriate setting for the astonishing individuality of Evans' subjects and fellow riders an individuality not so much of their roles and stations as of their secrets.

The Chicago street portraits of the mid forties, also made from a fixed vantage point, were a continuation of Evans' experiment with subjects over which the photographer's control had been reduced to a minimum. Here however the subject was more complex, and in motion; the photographer's yes or no decision became progressively more intuitive, and its results less predictable. A selection of these pictures was exhibited at The Museum of Modern Art in 1948, and several were published the next year in U.S. Camera Annual 1949. It would seem that they were among the most stimulating pictures of the period to the next younger generation of American photographers.

Perhaps the ultimate projection of these experiments was the group of pictures made in 1950 and earlier of the American industrial landscape as seen from the windows of moving trains. This linked sequence of investigations the subway pictures, the Chicago street portraits, and the snapshots from trains constituted a direct challenge to the conventional notions of serious photography of the time, by embracing rather than disputing the element of chance.

In the late forties James Agee, who had learned much about photography from his friend Evans, wrote that "luck ... is one of the cardinal creative forces in the universe, one which a photographer has unique equipment for collaborating with." Collaborating is probably the correct word, better than competing, even though the serious photographer will not accept luck blindly, but will do his best to outwit it, and trick it into serving his own prejudices. He knows in any event that luck, even when it defeats him, is the source of the ideas that he will hopefully resolve tomorrow. Luck to the photographer represents the appearance of unsolved problems; it means to him much what Nature meant to the nineteenth century painter.

In his serious pictures of the past twenty years, Evans has abandoned this duel with chance, and returned to the poised and contemplative style of his youth. He has however directed the intelligence and wit of that vision inward, toward a content that is often almost autobiographical. If there is a hint of mockery in these later pictures it is perhaps the self mockery of a middle aging pilgrim, who has discovered that his own principality is as rich in miracles and heresies as those of strangers. How surprising to find that documentary photographs (cool, precise as a police report, emotionally aloof) can be made in the apartments and weekend houses of one's friends, or in a child's bedroom in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. The secrets of the lives of Alabama sharecroppers and dead Victorians were recorded so we supposed for our edification. For whose eyes then are our own secrets revealed?

In addition to continuing his career as an artist, Evans today (because of his importance as exemplar to young photographers) has had imposed upon him the role of prophet. This is a situation that Evans might regard with both embarrassment and amusement. Since paradox and irony have been constant elements in his Own work, it is perhaps poetic justice that Evans should now find himself in a position similar in some respects to that of Stieglitz in 1929, when demanding young beniuses called on him. As Professor at Yale since 1965, Evans has approached the function of teaching (the function of achieving a beneficent relationship with the young) with a characteristic respect for the privacy of other minds. His teaching combines a tutorial informality of method with a tactful reserve in attitude, reflecting Evans' distaste for the tendentious.

IT IS DIFFICULT to know now with certainty whether Evans recorded the America of his youth, or invented it. Beyond doubt, the accepted myth of our recent past is in some measure the creation of this photographer, whose work has persuaded us of the validity of a new set of clues and symbols bearing on the question of who we are. Whether that work and its judgment was fact or artifice, or half of each, it is now part of our history.

Individually, the photographs of Walker Evans evoke an incontrovertible sense of specific places. Collectively, they evoke the sense of America. Writing in 1938 of an Evans photograph, Thomas Mabry said this: "Look across the river, down into Easton, Pennsylvania. I think it is a spring day. The whole town lies there. I was not born in Pennsylvania, nor in a city, and yet I think I must have been born here."


 


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