Biography: By NICHOLAS FOX WEBER
I used to try to figure out precisely what I was seeing all the
time, until I discovered I didn't need to. If the thing is there,
why, there it is.'' This was how the photographer Walker Evans
approached his art. The tone and content of his declaration encapsulate
the astute but cryptic viewpoint with which Evans emerges in ''Walker
Evans,'' published posthumously by the fine cultural biographer
James R. Mellow, who died in 1997. Evans comes across as possessed
by a brave and all-encompassing vision; like his work, he was
straightforward, decisive and highly intelligent. He is also shown
to have been cold and dismissive, an almost frightening combination
of the brazen and the unanalytical.
Evans photographed Manhattan construction sites, Tahitian beaches,
workers in Havana, American neo-Gothic architecture, gas stations
in West Virginia, barber shops in Mississippi, tenant farmers
in Alabama, flood refugees in Arkansas, New York subway riders
and a range of other subjects that documented American life, urban
and rural, affluent and impoverished, starting in the mid-1920's.
He made his best-known images in the Depression but continued
taking pictures -- many of which appeared in Fortune magazine
-- almost until his death in 1975 at the age of 71. He was one
of the rare human souls perpetually open to seeing and able to
push back the boundaries of what was acceptable. His scope was
inclusive, but he was discriminating. Receptive to everything,
he was also forever making judgments. The first photographer to
have a solo retrospective at a major American museum -- his 1933
show at the Museum of Modern Art -- Evans created images that
were visually and technically impeccable, and truly evocative
of their myriad themes. Carl Van Vechten rightly declared that
''if everything in American civilization were destroyed except
Walker Evans's photographs, they could tell us a good deal about
American life.'' Eleanor Roosevelt voiced much the same sentiment,
writing in one of her My Day columns that Evans's work ''shows
us contemporary America, and I think all of us who care about
our country will be deeply interested in this record.''
What is harder to figure out is how Evans felt about the America
and its inhabitants he captured. Regarding that issue, Mellow
-- like Evans with his camera -- does not comment on his subject
so much as focus carefully, present the information and let us
come to our own conclusions.
Mellow zeroes in on the pictures and describes their achievement
with both poignant accuracy and critical flair. Even when the
work is not reproduced, it comes vividly to mind, with sharply
elegant summations like ''a photo of a decrepit Ford with a door
off and a rubber tire missing, stationed like a pilgrimage shrine
on a journey not completed.'' A picture that ''shows a man and
a woman clutching each other against some impending menace'' in
front of a ''ravaged poster . . . plastered over with torn banners
. . . taken in the early phases of the Great Depression . . .
is an announcement of ephemerality: the ephemerality of the American
Dream, of American advertising, of circuses and movies -- the
whole host of disillusionments swept up by economic reality.''
How refreshing to read a commentator on art who evokes both what
something looks like and, without malarkey, what it signifies.
And in his clear way Mellow conveys Evans's considerable complexity.
He presents Evans and his art as exemplifying traits and effects
summed up by the photographer's primary supporter -- the indefatigable
editor, writer, curator and ballet impresario Lincoln Kirstein
-- who mounted exhibitions of the work, wrote a pivotal book about
it and brought it to the attention of the larger world. To Kirstein,
Evans's work was provocative, the man frustrating. Kirstein was
Evans's opposite in his intense emotional engagement and delicious
loss of control as he delved beneath surfaces. In a prose style
as personal as Evans's was objective, Kirstein wrote:
''Exerting a kind of small but concentrated animal magnetism,
he somehow seemed to allow his small size to lead him into the
exaggerations of a strutting compensation. . . . His jealousy
or irritation manifests itself after the initial impulse by a
long interval. His self-consciousness and localized egotism I
found so difficult to put up with that I knew I must be affected
Mellow himself holds back on generalizations or conclusive statements
evaluating either the work or its maker, but that jealousy and
irritation -- indeed, a real nastiness -- come through in Evans's
own voice. We have to assume that it was Mellow's intention to
portray Evans as pitiless and even cruel -- even if those traits
seem to be contradicted by his work. Consider Evans's assessment
of the photographer Ralph Steiner: ''Like all superior Jews, he
has married an inferior Nordic who has pushed him in the wrong
direction.'' Evans is no kinder about H. G. Wells, whom he calls
''not a poet, not an artist, not an historian. Just a goddamn
little socialist.'' His terseness and cynicism dominate a letter
to a friend about Hart Crane's suicide in 1932: ''Don't let this
upset you. Crane a goner long ago, as you will remember.'' Evans
is particularly chilling about Ben Shahn's wife, Tillie, when
pregnant: ''I dislike other men's wives in that condition.'' How
strange when someone whose art would suggest humanity seems lacking
Evans's harshness peaked in relation to his own family. Of a
reunion with his mother's relatives, he wrote a friend: ''I got
an immediate impression of false teeth, dandruff, adenoids, varicose
veins and halitosis of the eardrums. . . . How fatal it has been
that all the women have ruled the men right out of their masculinity,
independence, courage, will and at last, brains even.'' His bitterness
knew no bounds; when divorcing his wife, Jane, Evans wrote her,
''From now on I will consider you dead.''
Was Walker Evans one of those people who could show sympathy
only for anonymous strangers? Or was he, like many other highly
intelligent people, simply unable to avoid twisting the knife?
Mellow provides no answers here, but his apparently deliberate
decision to follow Evans's example and present rather than comment
seems the right one. After all, no adjectives Mellow might have
mustered could be as telling as Evans's own remarks.
Of course we do not know what Mellow might have done if he had
lived long enough to complete this book. Would he have given his
own assessment of the man he researched so carefully but met only
once -- on an occasion when Evans's alcoholism dominated their
encounter? Would he have worked with his editor to clear up certain
problems in the text -- the introduction of characters without
adequate explanation of who they are; confusion about Evans's
high school education in Toledo, Ohio, at the New England preparatory
schools Loomis and Andover and at Mercersburg Academy in Philadelphia,
with no precise elucidation of the sequence or why he attended
all of them? Would Mellow have eliminated occasional inconsistencies,
like the way he calls his subject Evans through most of the text
but Walker for just a few pages? Or was that intentional, since
the use of Walker coincides with what must be the photographer's
most human moment in the entire text -- a rare display of emotion
when Evans cries at the sight of Jane in an evening gown? These
shortcomings aside, Augie Capaccio, Mellow's partner, and Don
Fehr, his editor, are to be congratulated for producing this unfinished
book and providing a chronology of the last 18 years of Evans's
life; Mellow died before completing the final chapters.
The result includes fascinating cameos of some of the most imaginative,
energetic and courageous forces in 20th-century American culture.
The intersection of creative lives is forever exciting, and through
Evans we encounter, among others, the poet Ezra Pound, the saloniste
Muriel Draper, the painters Ben Shahn, Diego Rivera and Frida
Kahlo, the critic Dwight Macdonald, the art critic Clement Greenberg,
John Cheever as a struggling young book reviewer, the photographers
Alfred Stieglitz, Berenice Abbott and Jay Leyda, the publisher
Henry Luce and the writers Edmund Wilson and Ernest Hemingway
(on whom Mellow is particularly adept). Looming larger are the
ever-original Kirstein and Evans's brilliant collaborator on ''Let
Us Now Praise Famous Men,'' James Agee -- from whom Mellow provides
judicious quotations that lead him to the marvelous conclusion,
''Among hard-nosed social documentarians, Agee is a rank sensualist.''
What makes these portraits fascinating is that Evans knew these
people when they were hard-working, hard-living professionals,
not icons. Sometimes we sense that he treated the people in his
life the same way as the subjects of his photographs -- they were
there, so there they were -- but even if Evans's sentiments were
harsh or inaccessible, the scope of his lens was never in doubt.
More on Walker Evans:
Farm Security Administration Project on Walker Evan's Photography.
Evans Before + After
An exhibition at the Getty Museum.
York City Block, August 23, 1938 - Farm Security Administration
Office of War Information Projects .