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Walker Evans (1903-1975)Walker Evans

Documentary, Photojournalism


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 pretty subjectively.''

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 in it.

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:

Walker Evans Project
Farm Security Administration Project on Walker Evan's Photography.

Walker Evans Before + After
An exhibition at the Getty Museum.

New York City Block, August 23, 1938 - Farm Security Administration images
Office of War Information Projects .

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