As a collection, the Polaroids are remarkable in their consistent and determined attitude. They are bald presentations of individuals without mannerism or style and yet they are distinct, they are compelling, and their directness is palpable.
By Jane Tormey, originally published in Afterimage, July 1, 2003
During the last two years of his life Walker Evans took nearly 1000 portraits of friends and students using an SX-70 Polaroid camera in a peculiarly impulsive and uncontrolled way. This body of work constitutes a noticeable departure from the work for which Evans is best known and respected, and introduces an apparently alternative direction. It is significant that up until this point he had worked in a particularly public way whereas these portraits, produced more privately, remain separate from the public domain apart from discussion of his late works more generally. (2) This essay presents Walker Evans as an example of an author’s history, which depends on the knowledge/reputation of his familiar work and which perpetuates the perspective from which we view all subsequent work. Archival research of Evans’s Polaroid portraits suggests the possibility of a re-presentation of Walker Evans’s historiography. Is it possible to reframe such a powerful photographic figure and reposition his legacy?
Evans’s writings demonstrate a vocal example of a modernist photographic attitude. However, as he left no direct statement regarding this particular work, these images are without the authority granted by Evans himself, and thus provoke what seems an obvious question: what was his intention and where are these portraits situated within Evans’s philosophy and body of work as a whole? Because these are images without a story, they provide an opportunity to explore their unique quality without referring to his “classic” work. Is it possible to intervene in the process of authentication, to see them without the baggage of the author’s validation and not for what they represent?
Unidentified Woman, Old Lyme, Connecticut, February 2, 1974
However, this “posing” deviates from convention in a number of ways: it is opportunistic and careless, the level of closeness to the subject is unusual, and the degree of intrusive scrutiny is obsessive.
Images Without a Story
As a collection, the Polaroids are remarkable in their consistent and determined attitude. They are bald presentations of individuals without mannerism or style and yet they are distinct, they are compelling, and their directness is palpable. The series consists of single poses and more extensive studied sequences, taken usually at close range and in near succession. The context in which the photographs are taken is arbitrary and indiscriminate, without concern for lighting or positioning. Evans’s attention is on the subject; the background is cluttered, askew, or irrelevant, confused with pillows, or bedstead, or chair. With a number of subjects, he set himself a more certain project in the form of very deliberate posing sessions that follow a definite pattern and appear to have been directed in a conventional manner. However, this “posing” deviates from convention in a number of ways: it is opportunistic and careless, the level of closeness to the subject is unusual, and the degree of intrusive scrutiny is obsessive. The images give the appearance of a luminously focal isolation as the subjects stare up at Evans, startled sometimes, (3) and with an element of facial distortion as he pushes the focal length to its limit. This pattern of interaction with the camera is visible in its operation, as one can see the sessions starting fortuitously, subverting any formal preparation, and then continuing with the subject’s insouciant participation–this is when the images become more telling. The more intimate series, such as the images of Gay Burke, are less deliberate, triggered by incidental activities like getting into her car or brushing her hair. (4) It is the singular nature of these exchanges and the order of reciprocation beyond the photographic event that distinguishes one series from another and which directly informs their raw quality and energy. The Polaroids describe the continuous subtle interaction in what is going on besides the posing, the complexity and interdependence of relationship, of oppositional parallels. They question and confuse expectations of the photographer as director and photographed subject as performer, lying somewhere between a conversation and the formality of the photographic shoot. The subjects are neither preoccupied with the event of presentation nor fully self-absorbed. They appear to waver between presenting what they imagine is wanted and staying within themselves, and thus maintain a conscious autonomy. (5) The images appear to be intimate portraits yet they emphasize the movement between the extremes of intimacy and distance. It is this instability of role, between the tension of possession, distance, and emotional need that begins to reveal the fragmented and decentred nature of the images.
Joyce Baronio, October 11, 1974
They confront the viewer, making no concessions, and eschew the notion of shared universality. The images are without sentimentality, are uncompromising in their plain statement, and have no pretensions via narrative or comment or metaphoric reference.
The collection of Polaroids portraits presents a series of such paradoxes. The photographer “collects” people in a determinedly objective way, driven by his fascination and a complexity of feeling. An integral subjectivity contradicts the direct method of taking. An evident delight in observation of detail and insignificance disrupts and feeds a rapid, reckless process, facilitated by the easy phenomenon of Polaroid technology. The close shooting demands an element of abandon that denies the possibility of intention, perfect shot, or definitive statement about the subjects. They confront the viewer, making no concessions, and eschew the notion of shared universality. The images are without sentimentality, are uncompromising in their plain statement, and have no pretensions via narrative or comment or metaphoric reference. Relinquishing the photographer’s vision, Evans does not impose his “idea” of the subject; his concern is for something besides style or meaningful “good portraiture”–it is more literal and simple. Somehow this frenzy of personal compulsion and un-thoughtful method allows the individual to dominate. In allowing chance to dictate the making of the image and being totally dependent on instinct, this process becomes interestingly unique. It is this in-between place of carelessness and thoughtlessness that disturbs. It is the uncertainty of genre category that indicates this series as an important development between private and public display, between unprofessional and professional project, documentary and taxonomy, and the power and vulnerability of the photographer.
Another Walker Evans
I first saw these images in Jerry Thompson’s biographical account, where the author recognizes a “remarkable quality” but implies that Evans’s “best work” required more complexity in its photographic process than the Polaroids could allow. Sitting so awkwardly at the end of Evans’s oeuvre, these extraordinary images demand attention. Remarkable to me was their clear statement as “portraits” without “artistic pretension,” (6) clumsy but with qualities beyond a “snapshot.” Their quality verified what I had been considering at the time: the ambivalent positioning between the subject as photographer and the subject depicted, the quality evident in the tension between them and the resonance that can appear. They didn’t explain themselves, they didn’t narrate clearly, but were discursive in a more surreptitious way. Here in 1973-74, at the time of Derrida’s disruption of certainty and text, (7) and prior to Barthes’s revelatory discourse on looking at photographs, (8) bridging the divide between theory and emotion, were photographs being taken in a subjective, unfixed, and non-determinate way. I had first assumed that I must see them in the light of previous work in order to unravel the mystery, explain them. How did they support the work for which Evans was famed and respected? But what if I didn’t ask where they came from, where they were going, why they were there? What if another Evans made these images? Maybe there was more than one Walker Evans … the Sage … the Needy One … the “Great Sign Reader” (9) … and here, the Reckless One.
Virginia Hubbard, Destin, Florida, August, 6, 1974
Evans’s Polaroid images present themselves as something other than portraits and are therefore problematic. They are accidentally produced, confused and confusing in their position, and do not appear to be motivated by any clear vision.
When considering art works, there is a tremendous urge to know “the whole story,” but not having access to the privileged knowledge of intentionality provides an opportunity to avoid reconfirming the author in his own image. We assume “that what is conditioned by history is natural.” (10) We tend to lock an author in a time where his reputation was engendered, in this instance with his documentary work for the Farm Security Administration. We then continue to recreate the photographer at the expense of seeing the images and we formulate the identity of a body of work, via an investment in received knowledge. We construct a history of photography. Still implicitly dependent on the credibility of past reputation, we invest “in this figure, interests, which are bound to its very essence: universalism … an unalterable hierarchy of the world.” (11) Walker Evans is naturally redefined by his own definition, in what ultimately constitutes a tautology.
A revised aesthetic emerging in the 1960s secured an authoritative position for photography. This confidence was attributable in some degree to John Szarkowski’s encouragement of an inflated idea of the “photographer’s eye” (12) and its potential to transform the everyday into the transcendental. The photographer was now defining the subject with meaning and certainty, in such a way that was “unchallengeable,” elegant, and metaphoric, (13) and whose only responsibility was to the “good picture.” Descriptions of Evans as such an author have set a tone, an attitude that Evans himself vocally reasserted in his own writings, as in his catalogue of requirements for photographic “quality.” (14) In a sense Evans was the complete “author” defining “a new direction,” self-assured, opinionated, inspirational, very much the (anti) hero of American photography, slightly at odds with the mainstream approach, and stubbornly reiterating his own manifesto. Walker Evans becomes a sign for his own construction as an “author.” His certainty, instinct, and authorship contribute in turn to the construction of genres, of both portraiture and documentary.
Scrutiny of this series repeatedly questions what is assumed to characterize the genre of “portrait.” An expectation of the photographer’s role is to reveal something hidden by means of their special vision and to “capture” some quality in the subject that may be recognisable or universal. Given these constraints. Evans’s Polaroid images present themselves as something other than portraits and are therefore problematic. They are accidentally produced, confused and confusing in their position, and do not appear to be motivated by any clear vision. More traditional “portraiture” at least requires the photographer to interpret the individual via expression, position, and pose, to affirm a particular value in the portrayal, which comments or defines. In its extreme form it motivates deliberate fabrications of iconic representation and ironic moments. Evans’s misalignment with the assumed values of “distilled photographic portraiture” (15) suggests instead parallels with Andy Warhol’s obsessive scrutiny and disregard for photographic tradition–a Warhol with whom Evans shares a significant deviation from the special event of portrayal towards a more ambiguous placement of the photographed subject somewhere between intimacy and formality.
Ricki Hudeas, Old Lyme, Connecticut, August 24, 1974
His carelessness, both in the nature of the posing and in the manner of taking, questions the uncertainty of the images’ inherent worth as a result of their dependence on the subjectivity of desire, rather than the disinterestedness of the artist’s objective vision.
Judged on the basis of traditional genre, such photographs would be dismissed as inferior or even as botched attempts. The images have the look of bad amateur photographs … deliberately celebrated his apparently indifferent application of technique. He [Warhol] denied the importance of manual craftsmanship and technical expertise in order to eradicate the impression of a specific artistic vision … [these] snaps do not provide thoughtful interpretations of what is seen, nor do they capture decisive moments. (16)
If one applies this description of Exposures (17) to that of Evans’s portraits, one can see the same disturbance in process. Together these works are indicative of a radical conceptual change, validating a more oblique method, moving significantly away from a search for personality or anything at all. They make no attempt to mythologize.
If we accept that our knowledge of a genre will affect our response to the work then what appears to reside in that particular genre, however aslant the work might appear will be viewed with reference to that particular “symbol system.” (18) It is very difficult to step outside the genre of portraiture once it is identified. The language of portraiture has become obvious and natural. (19) Thus, what we might presume to be of importance can be very noticeably distorted. The use and application of a photographic genre rests on what is believed to be centrally important in defining that genre: for example, the framing, the care, the decisive vision, “catching the character.” Here the pursuit of character is underplayed or not played at all, and in this sense they are remarkably passive. The difficulty in situating these images might reside in the expectation that a portrait should encompass a comment, should endeavour to shape “an extended meditation on life” and that failure to do this may leave us with an image that serves as a fetishist representation and which is merely therapeutic. Here the frame is between the center and the margins of portraiture, residing in an accident or in a kind of happy snap. In this case, the genre of portraiture is very obliquely alluded to in that these images are only in a literal sense portraits, and do not conform to what is expected.
Critical judgement derives from a determination of values, guided by an assumed need for impartiality. In an argument for more uncertain “performative dimensions of meaning production,” Amelia Jones (20) gives an account of the absorption of Kant’s notion of “disinterestedness,” which “requires impartiality and a pose of neutrality (a repression and veiling of desire) on the part of the interpreter.” Kant defined a difference between lack of interest, disinterest, and subjective investment that provoked the premise of the “polarity of objectivity and subjectivity.” (21) Art history has assumed the original notion of “disinterest” and re-submerged it in an investment in expectations, hierarchies, and tradition, revalidating aesthetic value and giving credibility and certainty by reiterating that established value. The habitual aim is to avoid producing “embodied, sensate, interested, contingent and therefore individualised and non universal judgements.” (22) If one applies this last description to these late portraits, one can see that this is exactly what is being produced. Work that is partial, subjective, particular, and in some instances incidental, irrelevant, and very ordinary photographic work such as Evans’s, and more recently Nan Goldin’s, (23) employ and rely on the contingent and non-universal, Goldin deliberately and Evans unwittingly. They affirm the object, the other, and the subject, leaving reason aside and including subjectivity by using both objective reason and subjectivity in the process. Is what is happening in these images confounding our certainty by not allowing us to “repress our desire,” by means of the photographer not successfully repressing his desire? The failure to repress desire is concomitant with the degree of rawness. “For Kant, it is the aesthetic that must bridge the chasm of contradictions opened between the ‘subjective’ and the ‘universal.” (24) It is in this “chasm” that Evans falls. His carelessness, both in the nature of the posing and in the manner of taking, questions the uncertainty of the images’ inherent worth as a result of their dependence on the subjectivity of desire, rather than the disinterestedness of the artist’s objective vision.
Unidentified Woman, Old Lyme, Connecticut, February 2, 1974
Evans’s images disturb expectations and thereby achieve a fundamental, ideational subversion that exceeds visual ambiguity. The nature of their disturbance lies with their physical presence, their discursive method, and their uncertainty.
Evans’s familiar “documentary style” (25) is not only readable and familiar but documentary sanctified and touched with expression. If Evans’s portraits appropriate any mode, it is that of the vernacular, adopting the extreme spontaneity and thoughtlessness that the Polaroid camera provokes. Geoffrey Batchen, in the course of editing “Vernacular Photographies,” (26) asked a range of people to respond to questions about the nature of the “vernacular photograph.” Definitions by different respondents describe many of the qualities of Evans’s late portraits, placing them in the realm of the vernacular: “visceral,” “immediate,” “without consequent ambition,” “naive,” “lacking self-conscious expression,” a non-category,” “confusing,” “inarticulate.” In the same article, Elizabeth Hutchinson suggests that definitions of the vernacular depend on “subjectively determined formal qualities in the images” that are in turn thought to be “more ‘authentic’ and ‘direct’ than those … of art photographs.” Evans’s are exactingly direct and apparently authentic in that they do seem alarmingly naive. If Evans touches documentary with expression, terming it documentary style, what is this “vernacular” touched with exactly? Jones quotes Pierre Bourdieu in connection with the suggestion that popular culture threatens aesthetic hierarchies (here the vernacular “snap” threatens the serious genre of artistic portraiture). He says “the object which ‘insists on being enjoyed’ […] neutralizes. It annihilates the distanciating power of representation.” (27) Bourdieu’s objects of enjoyment are traditionally seen as bad taste because they refuse to conform to “distanciating power of representation.” Evans’s portraits lack “distanciation” and approach “bad taste” as he projects his desires onto these unattainable objects / women / people. Jones asks, “What happens then, when works of art solicit impure bodily pleasures? Overtly stage their relationship to the viewer as corporeal, invested, mutual, intersubjective?” (28) In Evans’s case also, they overtly present, but covertly articulate, the intersubjective relationship, as opposed to a more manifestly described relationship in Goldin’s images. And if, as Jones suggests, works of art assert themselves as only being “rehearsals, never final or fixed,” encouraging a lack of formality, one can see these Polaroids as merely “rehearsals.” The immediacy of the Polaroid process amplifies the interaction that may occur between photographer and subject, and one can see in these images the disruption, dependent on a transient process of exchange and investment, resulting in “works that open up the performative dimension of meaning production.”
Evans’s images disturb expectations and thereby achieve a fundamental, ideational subversion that exceeds visual ambiguity. The nature of their disturbance lies with their physical presence, their discursive method, and their uncertainty. The project is consistent in its purpose, though apparently aimless, persistently and recklessly pursuing something that is not articulated or validated. It denies the security of easy placement or definition, and, in this sense, signals a tendency toward indeterminate photographic practices that become prevalent soon after Evans’s death. As he said himself, he sensed “something in the air,” (29) something that is not restricted to photography. He adopted the method of the “snapshot,” of the intimate and the incidental, as a “style.” He depicted the individuals not by centring them, but by using an opportunistic, diaristic process, where the construction was careless yet dynamic. It is a digressive process that leaks out intimations of personality and establishes a position for the portrait where it does not remain static but finds a more dialogic approach to psychological portraiture. Evans’s decentred method deviates from a more traditional aesthetic and can be seen to echo corresponding positions in critique described by Jones as “performative,” and by Bal as “dynamic process.” (30) If, as Moxey suggests, (31) our knowledge is malleable and aesthetic trend is reactive, then we are reacting now with the adoption of the ordinary and the awful as “good,” relinquishing formalism and the supremacy of the intentional “photographer’s eye.” In the context of reading photographs, Barthes’s Camera Lucida combines a theoretical and subjective interpretation that departs from the logic founded in structuralism and explores a process of non-definitive logic. In Droit de Regards, (32) Derrida develops this logic in an examination of photographs that demonstrates methods of looking and understanding, and interrogates implicit interpretation, or what appears at first “natural” and our “desire for stories.” His analysis takes the form of a contradictory reflection, which allows every detail to have significance and every participant to have a voice. As he explicates “interminable narratives,” he extends notions of seeing, steers us away from a definitive account, and denies us the certainty of closure. Derrida’s refusal of “presentness,” of certainty, is as far from definitive criteria as can be and claims Evans’s work as being generated from a decentred, subjective premise.
On first sight this work might appear simple, slight, and not serious, but it raises many issues: from emotional distance to confrontation, from the nature of the casual shot to the construction of resonant images. With this body of work, Evans appears to contradict both the expectations of genre and himself as defined author. He appears to contradict his own rules, his own mythology as sign for “Author.” Similarly, the archive itself marks a number of contradictions. These Polaroids, which lend themselves so easily to disposal, are now carefully catalogued and made permanent. As part of a resource that is physically isolated, they are made precious. Their interpretation is not fixed and entirely subject to how it is situated. The portraits can be seen both in contrast to and analogous to aspects evident in earlier work (33) and to Evans’s more spontaneous remarks concerning the important role of instinct. (34) He was following his philosophy, trusting himself “to go down paths now that perhaps [he] wouldn’t have had the nerve to penetrate before.” (35) His seriousness is evident in the fact he himself consistently referenced these images on the reverse. Thus the archive can be indeterminate and the location of these images underlines the equivocal role they might play in constructing alternative stories. With more certainty, one can see how Evans’s concerns here were out of kilter with existing precepts at that time and heralded something more discursive and disruptive. His unpictorial approach anticipated the adoption of the vernacular mode of photography, the “snapshot” and the resulting clumsy, oblique viewing in portrayal, rather than purposeful “character” portrait construction. He anticipated the putting aside, or abuse, of technology and the assumption of deliberate strategies to encounter directness, to subvert authorial expectations and conventions such as portrait photography. A deliberately crude realism (36) is one logical step to dismantle this hierarchy. Evans’s project provides an individual example of the derivation of a shift in the criteria that determine a “good portrait” and the disruption of photographic hierarchies in process.
The photographs discussed are in the Walker Evans Archive, acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York in 1994 from the artist’s estate and catalogued and kept by the Department of Photographs. The author would like to acknowledge the considerable help given by the department, particularly that of Mia Fineman and Jeff Rosenheim. Research at the Museum was funded with support by the Arts & Humanities Research Board
Images provided by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Walker Evans Archive. [c] 1994
(1) Leslie Katz, “An Interview with Walker Evans,” in Vicky Goldberg, ed., Photography in Print: Writings from 1876 to the Present (New York Simon and Schuster, 1981), pp. 358-69. Evans speaking about Stieglitz’s photography: “It gave me an aesthetic to sharpen my own against, a counter-aesthetic.”
(2) See Jerry I. Thompson, The Last Years of Walker Evans (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1999), Mia Fineman, “The Eye is an Inveterate Collector,” The Late Work in Walker Evans (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000), and Jeff L. Rosenheim, Polaroids (New York: Scalo, 2002).
(3) D.1994.262.124, Joyce Baronio, October 11, 1974, startled or D.1994.262 191 Gay Burke, May 4, 1974 in the Walker Evans Archive, Metropolitan Museum of Art (hereafter WEA, MMA).
(4) WEA, MMA, D.1994.262.530-34 series of Gay Burke brushing her hair, Old Lyme, Connecticut, 1973-74.
(5) WEA, MMA, D.1994.262.50, Virginia Hubbard, August 6, 1974.
(6) Walker Evans, Notes for “Lyric Documentary” on cards, in the Walker Evans Archive, Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1994).
(7) Jacques Derrida, “Difference,” in Speech and Phenomenon, translated by David B. Allison (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973).
(8) Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, translated by Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981).
(9) WEA, MMA, 1994.260.11 (8) Letter from Mary Knollenberg to Evans, August 29, 1973.
(10) Derives from Roland Barthes’s position in “Myth Today,” in Mythologies, translated by Annette Lavers (London: Vintage, 1993). “Myth tends towards proverbs,” p. 154. “Myth has the task of giving an historical intention a natural justification, and making contingency appear eternal,” p. 142, “it transforms history into nature,” p. 129, “history evaporates,” p. 151. “At a certain point it can freeze a reputation in time: History can become vitrified, freezes into an eternal reference,” p. 125, and “all that is left for one to do is enjoy this beautiful object without wondering where it comes from” p. 151.
(11) Barthes, Myth Today, pp. 152-54. Interestingly, as a more contemporary example Nan Goldin, in interview explodes this phenomenon further by appearing to define herself as others have described her–a double tautology. See for example in My Life interview on the occasion of her exhibition at the Whitney Museum 1996-97, where she describes herself as “a diarist.” She also pertinently in this interview says, “snapshots are the only sort of photography that is inspired by love. They don’t have any theoretical premise.”
(12) The Photographer’s Eye, exhibition curated by John Szarkowski at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1966.
(13) John Szarkowski, “Introduction,” in Walker Evans, catalogue for exhibition at Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1971. “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 the photographer’s opinion; yet the picture itself should possess a taut athletic grace. An inherent structure, that gives its life metaphor.” “[Evans’s work is] reticent, understand and impersonal” [… and] “constitutes a reaffirmation of what had been photography’s central sense of purpose and aesthetic: the precise and lucid description of significant fact.”
(14) WEA, MMA, 1994.250.54 notes on “quality” for his chapter on photography where he makes lists of what is important to good photography and describes the work of Sander, Nadar, Hine among others in Louis Kronenberger, ed., Quality: Its Image in the Arts (New York: Atheneum, 1969).
(15) Publicity material for the retrospective exhibition “Richard Avedon: Portraits,” in Maria Morris Hambourg, and Mia Fineman, Avedon’s Endgame, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 2002, [cited 1/19/2003, available online at “http://www.metmuseum.org/special/Richard Avedon”].
(16) Hubertus Butin, “Oh When Will I Be Famous, When Will It Happen? Andy Warhol’s Society Photos,” in Andy Warhol Photography (Zurich and New York Stemmle Publishers, 1999). pp. 249-50.
(17) See “Exposures” of 1976-87 in Andy Warhol, Andy Warhol Photography (Zurich and New York: Stemmle Publishers, 1999).
(18) Nelson Goodman, The Language of Art: an Approach to the Theory of Symbols (London: Oxford University Press, 1969).
(19) Rhonda Lieberman, “Jacques Le Narcissiste,” Artforum, (October 2002): pp. 35-36. In this article about the film Derrida, Derrida is quoted saying, “deconstruction sets out not to naturalize what is not natural. To not assume that what is conditioned by history, institutions or society is natural.” Reference then is made to Heidegger’s inference that anecdote is inferior to though Thought in this case perhaps being the equivalent to original seeing or photographic thought, rather than historical or biographical under-standing. For Derrida, what is important is the question of narration, or the manner of telling. Derrida extends notions about seeing, by permitting us to actively question what appears at first natural.
(20) Amelia Jones gives a succinct account of the origins of Kantian “disinterestedness” in “Art History/Art Criticism: Performing Meaning,” in A. Jones and A. Stephenson, ed., Performing the Body, Performing the Text (London and New York: Routledge, 1999) pp. 39-41.
(21) Karen Lang, “Reason and Remainders: Kantian Performativity in the History of Art” in Performing the Body, Performing the Text. p. 19.
(22) Jones, “Art History/Art Criticism,” p. 40.
(23) Nan Goldin began photographing her friends in 1971: her most renowned work is The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (New York: Aperture Foundation, 1986).
(24) Jones, “Art History/Art Criticism,” p. 40.
(25) Walker Evans, “Lyric Documentary”, transcript of a lecture delivered at Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, March 11, 1964, p. 38 in WEA, MMA. “My thought is that the term documentary is inexact, vague–even grammatically weak as used to describe a style in photography which happens to be my style. Further, that what I believe is really good in so-called documentary approach of photography is the addition of lyricism. Further, that the lyric is usually produced unconsciously and even unintentionally and accidentally by the camera-man.”
(26) Geoffrey Batchen, “Vernacular Photographies,” in History of Photography, 24:3 (Autumn 2000): 262-71. Batchen interestingly and coincidentally touches on a number of aspects relevant to this argument: “One might imagine, for example, a historical typology of vernacular photographers organized around the way they deal with their photographs: addition, elaboration, subtraction, erasure, sequencing, masking, framing, inscription, posing, multiplication, etc. or perhaps a more fertile approach would involve tracing common themes (death, memory, family, desire, childhood etc.) or social functions (exchange, memorialization, confirmation, certification). Another key relationship worthy of exploration is the involvement of the body with these objects, both the body of the subject and that of the viewer. This fast category of body must of course include that of the writer him/herself, adding an overt autobiographical element to hi/her history. We are talking about a kind of anecdotal (see it tipping Heidegger’s hierarchy), novelistic approach to vernacular photography then, a historical version of Barthes’s Camera Lucida (which is written in the first person throughout following the author’s earlier decision to take myself as mediator for all Photography … the measure of photographic knowledge). Michel Foucault’s archaeological’ approach to historical analysis is another fruitful model. His examination of modes of knowing (rather than knowledge itself), his concentration on marginal voices (rather than ‘great masters’), his abandonment of evolutionary cause and effect as an organising principle, and his employment of elliptical rhetoric, result in a style of discussion closer to a Borges conundrum than to a traditional history.”
(27) Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, translated by Richard Nice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984) p. 489.
(28) Jones, “Art History/Art Criticism,” p. 41. Relating to Jones’ “invested, mutual and intersubjective,” Thompson, in The Last Years cites one extreme instance of interaction in the “drama” manufactured by Evans: “potent (if not killing) glances shoot from one character to another, vectors realigning form picture to picture, and sometimes aimed at the eye behind the camera, making Walker the fourth character in this imagined play, which might have been Flirtation or Les Liaisons pas tres dangereuses.” p. 84 Here the interaction appears to have entered another dimension beyond straight “taking”; beyond simple active photographer/passive subject and Evans pushes his rehance on the affection of others for him to the edge; he’s depending on a reciprocal affection in these photographs that is extremely subjective, extremely personal and not at all distanced. Image described is WEA, MMA D.1994.262.756
(29) Walker Evans. “The Thing itself is Such a Secret and So Unapproachable,” recording of talks with students at Yale, late 1973. Yale Alumni Magazine xxxvii (5): pp. 12-16.
(30) Mieke Bal, “Seeing Signs” in Mark A. Cheetham, Michael Ann Holly, Keith Moxey, ed. The Subjects of Art History: historical objects in contemporary perspectives (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998). pp. 79-80.
(31) Keith Moxey, “The History of Art after the Death of the ‘Death of the Subject,'” In Visible Culture, 1999, [cited 1/2/2003]; available online at “http://www.rochester.edu.in_visible_culture/issuel/moxey/moxey/html”
(32) Jacques Derrida, “Droit de Regards,” translated by David Wills, Art & Text 32, (Autumn 1989).
(33) Such as sessions with Lincoln Kirstein in the 1930’s. Kirstein describes Evans’ blind. impulsive way of working. “we got crazier and crazier ending up in an orgy of gaga poses (which) were not as good as Evans thought they were.” Lincoln Kirstein, Diary, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts: p. 131.
(34) See for example, Katz, “An Interview with Walker Evans.”
(35) Lincoln Caplan, Walker Evans on Himself, transcript of talk given at Harvard. April 8, 1975. Exposure, Society for Photographic Education 151 (February 1977).
ASX CHANNEL: WALKER EVANS
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