Walker Evans – The Poetry of Plain Seeing (2000)

“While Evans gave much effort to photographing poor people, their houses, rooms and the things they made, it is far from clear that poverty is the point of his best pictures.”


By Leo Rubinfien, originally published in Art in America, December 2000

A traveling retrospective (2000) prompts the author to recall the austere formalist–and often mordant “self-made well-bred man”–behind the conventional image of Walker Evans as an empathetic social documentarian.

Few artists are more candid about their esteem for their predecessors than Garry Winogrand was about his for Walker Evans. Evans had shown him that photographs could “describe intelligence,” he would say –and in his terse idiom this was the highest possible praise–but his admiration was never returned. In the early ’60s Winogrand applied for his first Guggenheim Fellowship and went to Evans for support, leaving a box of prints overnight; the next morning he was handed them back by someone he called Evans’s doorman, together with a cursory no thanks. Evans had not softened 10 years later, even though Winogrand’s accomplishment had by then become obvious, even though he was celebrated in the small world of people who loved the poetry an unadulterated photograph can extract from the commonest face, housefront or handshake, even though many of them would say that he was, after Robert Frank, Evans’s principal heir. In Evans’s last seminar at Yale, six months before he died in 1975, I put work on the table along with that of six or eight other students. Among my pictures was one I’d made off Route 101 between Salinas and King City:. it showed three house-trailer women in stretchy pants that bulged with fat flesh, walking away from the camera toward the grassy, shining hills of summer California. Evans looked at the picture for as few seconds as possible and said–he didn’t ask, he said–“Why do you want to photograph people like this? They’re like all those people that man Winogrand photographs. They’re so vulgar!”

I was mystified. Photographers believed that they were entitled to photograph anything–the cloud in the sky, the arthritic hands of the bejeweled prostitute, the chalk scrawls on the sidewalk, the gnomelike pepper. It was a primary axiom then, as it is now. One might have a hundred reasons for denouncing somebody’s photographs, but not his choice of subject: what he did with the subject, how he understood it, that was the point. Furthermore, much of what Evans had photographed seemed no less vulgar than the stuff in Winogrand’s pictures. One might even say that Evans had opened up American vulgarity as a subject for photographers. Lincoln Kirstein certainly thought so in 1938, when, in his afterword to the primary book of Evans’s career, American Photographs, he wrote extravagantly that “his pictures exist to testify to the symptoms of waste and selfishness that caused the ruin.” Here is Evans himself, on his diary’s page for July 4, 1935, when he was driving through West Virginia: “In end of rain to Term Alta pronounced Teralta. There a homecoming of natives, very degenerate natives, mush faced, apathetic, the pall of ignorance on all sides. Photographed the most gruesome specimens.” The picture he made that day of a puffy, freckled girl with a sullen eye and an idiotic faux-boater garnishing her head hits Teralta even harder than his ferocious commentary.

More than 20 books of Evans’s photographs have been published now;, them are three biographies so detailed that we can know of many of his days where he pursued a dollar in the morning, whom he lunched with and who turned up to share his bed; and them have been superb exhibitions of his work at the best museums in America. As much has been done as can be done to place him at the center of American photography in the 20th century, yet he remains still the most enigmatic of photographers, the hardest to get to the heart of, the most resistant to definition. Of the many masons why, them is first of all the inconsistency of his work. Jerry Thompson exaggerated when he wrote that Evans “tried out every major artistic style of the century,” but the distance between A Bench in the Bronx on Sunday (1933) and Tin Snips (1955) is at least as great as between Eliot and Whitman, between “And the jew squats on the window sill, the owner” and “Shapes of Democracy total, result of centuries … Shapes of turbulent manly cities … Shapes of the friends and home-givers … Shapes bracing the earth, …” People other than Evans were the initiators of four of his five most important projects–Lincoln Kirstein set before him the Victorian architecture of New England; Ernestine Evans embarked him for Havana; Rexford Tugwell and Roy Stryker sent him to Bethlehem, Morgantown, Vicksburg and New Orleans; James Agee took him to Alabama. The bleeding of their diverse purposes into Evans’s own is perhaps one root of the frustrating disparateness of American Photographs, which gives us many buildings from the times of Presidents Arthur and Cleveland, but few from its own day; which includes Cuba, but omits Washington, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Chicago and everything west of the Mississippi.







Where Evans’s friends and supporters have stated their own interests, as in Hart Crane’s The Bridge and James Agee’s text for Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, it has generally got in the way of understanding him, not helped. There were many years when photography in total was struggling for prestige, and when Evans earned a morsel of it through the publication of three of his early photographs in Harry Crosby’s first edition of Crane’s poem. It was inconvenient then for anyone, Evans included, to point out how ill-matched the words and photographs really were, though today we should be able to say it in public: Evans’s three tiny gray-black meditations on hugeness and distance are nothing at all like the Battle Hymn bombast of “Oh harp and altar, of the fury fused / (How could mere toil align thy choiring strings!).” Evans is closer in spirit to Agee than he ever was to Crane, but still presents none of the ecstasy of self-abasement that is the blood in the veins of Agee’s Alabama story. Evans is austere, careful and, on the surface, unrevealing of himself on every point where Agee is incantatory, enraged and ad hominem.

The austerity of Evans’s work–its famous “coldness,” its apparent effacement of its maker–has always been the most difficult thing about it, of course. Numerous photographers, writers and curators, sophisticated and sometimes eminent, will admit willingly that the first time they were shown his work (often by someone who had earlier gone through a similar education) they saw no pictures there at all, only the things in the pictures. Evans’s photographs seemed completely transparent, and their subjects somewhere in the range between mildly interesting and fully boring, even if one allowed that Life magazine, advertising and Hollywood were what had taught one to expect high drama and style in the first place. There has been a lot of consequent grasping for whatever assistance Crane, Agee, Stryker, et al. might seem to offer, and the need to give Evans a familiar face is responsible for the most common misinterpretation of his work: that his aims were the ones proclaimed by his employers in 1935 and ’36, the Resettlement Administration and the Farm Security Administration; that in the period of his greatest work, the 1930s, his motivation was sympathy for the very poor, his goal an improved social justice. Anyone who was introduced to Evans’s pictures in an art-history class in the ’70s will remember the lineage that was drawn up for him then, running mechanically back to Jacob Riis through Lewis Hine, who had, after all, photographed poor people too, and who had been genuine reformists. At that time Evans told William Stott, “The apostles can’t have me. I don’t think an artist is directly able to alleviate the human condition,” but he failed to change the popular view. Even now it is not rare to find well-informed people who aren’t quite sum that Evans wasn’t the author of Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother, that his majestic portrait of Allie Mae Burroughs, Alabama Cotton Tenant Farmer Wife (1936), wasn’t made by Lange or even that Mrs. Burroughs and the migrant mother weren’t the same lady.

While Evans gave much effort to photographing poor people, their houses, rooms and the things they made, it is far from clear that poverty is the point of his best pictures. There is little in his photograph to indicate that the tenant farmer’s wife was a tenant farmer’s wife, little to keep one from imagining that she was instead, say, the wife of a sergeant of supply, waiting in prosperous 1946 for the Army’s return from Luzon. A strong sense of the erotic always lingers around this photograph, nor will this seem odd if we think of Agee’s and Evans’s flirtings with Allie Mae and her sister. The question that it asks but can never answer, and which keeps us returning to it, is not Agee’s heartrending “how did we get caught?” (in a miserable life of sunburnt plantings, infected animals, lame children, usurious landlords and hopeless longings), but “is she beautiful?” It is more rarefied a question than Agee’s, yet also scrupulously local to the encounter between Evans and Allie Mae. The data it consults are the way that she bites her lip, aware, I want to believe, that she is wizening fast even though she is still young; her eyes’ suspicion that the man from New York sees everything about her and that it is useless to try to conceal; the lack of any paint in that beauty which yet remains to her. One feels she has been pushed into her sharp self-consciousness by the camera, by being examined, and, wonderfully, this makes her more beautiful, even as life is wearing her away. Where the photograph points toward large matters, they am not serfdom or the Great Depression, they are more like the place where happiness and grief run together, the relation of masculine to feminine, the extent to which any person can be known by another, whether sentience makes a human being better than he would be without it, and the solitude in which even two intimate people must live to the ends of their lives.

The physical marks of the Depression are, in fact, strikingly absent from Evans’s pictures, even though he was the supreme American photographer of the 1930s, and although he was paid for a time under the New Deal. “New York in 1932 was half-completed skyscrapers,” Robert Caro tells us, “work on them long since halted for lack of funds, that glared down on the city from glassless windows. It was housewives scavenging for vegetables under pushcarts. It was crowds gathering at garbage dumps in Riverside Park and swarming onto them every time a new load was deposited, digging through the piles with sticks or hands in hopes of finding bits of food. New York was the soup kitchens operated from the back of army trucks in Times Square. It was the men, some of them wearing Chesterfield coats and homburgs, who lined up at the soup kitchens with drooping shoulders and eyes that never looked up from the sidewalk.” Evans lived in New York City for the whole bitter decade, yet apart from two pages in American Photographs which show a man sleeping in a South Street doorway, almost nothing like the above shows up in his work. Still, the misreading on the basis of what has been said for his work, rather than by it, goes on. James Mellow’s 1999 biography calls Interior, West Virginia Miner’s House (1936) “an ironic metaphor of the American Dream in disrepair,” when in fact the picture turns less upon the opposition of poverty and prosperity than upon the barefoot simplicity of a boy who could be Tom Sawyer vs. the shrieking good cheer of an obese Santa Claus, taunting him from behind the sideboard that it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, that toys are in every store….

Yet more complex than the issue of Evans’s sympathies am the idea that photographs maybe “documentary,” and the question of what that term might mean in relation to his work. At one time his work was routinely called “social documentary,” and while “social” has dropped out of the expression somewhat in recent years, he never seems to be able to shake off “document.” Every photograph is a document of something, of course (even Man Ray’s Rayograph of faces that seem to be kissing, made with no camera at all, reproduces two profiles exactly as they were pressed against a sheet of paper one day in 1922), and when “documentary” is used to characterize Evans’s work, it is heavy with obfuscating meaning. There is an older usage, in which we hear “document” as “evidence,” as in, to give documentary proof of how bad things really are. There is also a younger, which emphasizes the mechanical aspect of photography, and means a neutral kind of truth-telling from which the biases of the teller might be expunged, such as was famously declared by Christopher Isherwood—“I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.” Each usage represents certain beliefs, and although they am often interchanged or even muddled together, the two am actually opposed to each other–the former, in which art implies reformist action, is essentially romantic; the latter, with its suppression of the subjective in pursuit of authenticity, is modern.

Evans complicated the matter himself by speaking of the documentary in different voices, at different times. In 1930 he said that he had left behind “Continental methods” (European avant-gardist style) in favor of making “records”; in 1931 he admired August Sander’s work as “clinical”; in 1936 he proposed to Stryker photographs “of a general sociological nature”; in 1937 to the Guggenheim Foundation “the most exhaustive possible visual catalogue of the facts”; and in an application for his fellowship’s renewal in 1941 he called his New York subway portraits “semi-automatic.” Yet in 1964 he described his work not as “documentary” but “lyric documentary,” and by 1971 reflected that it had not in fact been documentary at all, but of a “documentary style.” “You see, a document has use,” he said, “whereas art is really useless,” and again, “literally, a document is a police report of a dead body or an automobile accident …. But the style of detachment and record is another matter.”

What emerged over 40 years in Evans’s statements was a greater and greater recognition of the poetic possibilities of plain seeing. It had always been there in his photographs, certainly–it was the foundation of the best of them–but with the aid of those years he found it a name. There are two characteristics of photography that of course make pure record impossible. They am the facts that every photograph is extremely selective of what it shows, and that all photographs am twice inflected–once in the original seeing, where the slightest angling is suffused with emotion, and again when the world-as-seen is emptied of movement and sound and fixed on a sheet of paper with a particular texture, and cast of color and light. The distortion of natural seeing that occurs in the best photographs makes it hard to say that they am very faithful to their subjects at all, and often makes the photograph more vital than its subject ever was in life. A superb photographer may brush up against the momentous concerns of his age, but the sum of his distortive choices–what, borrowing from Wallace Stevens, we might call “the fiction that results from feeling”–is what we will value him for when his age has become as dull to us as a textbook.

Evans arrived at the austere, transparent style for which he is famous, he did not begin there. Of his finest photographs that have its stern frontality, the earliest may be Couple at Coney Island, New York (1928), which is full of glee in the gaudy nonsense of Luna Park, and merciless with details like the man’s white high-heeled boot and the woman’s weighty bare shoulders and lumpish behind. As late as 1930, though, Evans was still making very different pictures—the Continental type–which were less concerned with what is said by physiognomy, costume or architectural embellishment than with pictorial effect. One of the most exquisite of these is New York (1928-30), a double print which overlays a stairway upside down on some tall buildings and a pile driver, it is a glittering scrap of futurism, but, like futurism generally, has a single skill and knows not how to do more than celebrate. Couple at Coney Island is far less celebratory (here is what people mean when they speak of Evans’s coldness)–it is inquisitional. It demands to know what kind of man would wear that fancy boot with his chalkstripes, and what kind of woman would lean so closely into such a man’s shoulder, and what such a man and woman might be believing as they gaze upon the miracle of America in the time of the great boom. Over the last of the ’20s, Evans repudiated the Continental manner and started in full consciousness down the read of his classic style. It is generally said that his choice was a rejection of such artiness and grandiosity as he found in Alfred Stieglitz, whom he called a “screaming aesthete,” and of the commerciality of Stieglitz’s protege Steichen, “whose general note,” he wrote in 1931, was “money … parvenu elegance, slick technique … a hardness and superficiality that is the hardness and superficiality of America’s latter day.” Evans was rejecting more, however, than just the two most prominent photographers in the country, and he had been rejecting it for a long time.

One of the most valuable comments Evans ever made on his work was to Leslie Katz in 1971. Evans had longed to be a writer well into his first years as a photographer, and Katz now asked him if there hadn’t been literary influences on his pictures. He answered, “Flaubert … by method. And Baudelaire in spirit. Yes, they certainly did influence me, in every way.” That Evans might have learned how to show from Flaubert (“a kind of god to me”) is unsurprising–Flaubert described the housemaid Felicite’s room, for example, very much as an Evans picture would have done:

There was a table beside the bed, with a water jug, a couple of combs, and a block of blue soap in a chipped plate. On the walls there were rosaries, medals, several pictures of the Virgin, and a holy-water stoup made out of a coconut. On the chest of drawers, which was draped with a cloth just like an altar, was the shell box Victor bad given her, and also a watering-can and a ball, some copy-books, the illustrated geography book, and a pair of ankle-boots. And on the nail supporting the looking-glass, fastened by its ribbons, hung the little plush hat…. All the old rubbish Mme. Aubain had no more use for, she carried off to her room. That was how there came to be artificial flowers along the edge of the chest of drawers, and a portrait of the Comte d’Artois in the window-recess.

That Evans gave Baudelaire as his spiritual source (“I consider him the father of modern literature, the whole modern movement” is fascinating, though, and when we am ready to throw away the pieties with which convention has loaded Evans up, we will start to find the central emotion of Baudelaire in him everywhere. It is what the poet called “spleen”: the artist’s contempt for just about everything–for the physical world and its people, for beauty, love, art and writing, for friendship, for what claimed to be troth, for his own reader—a contempt exceeded only by his contempt for himself. This last is of course spleen’s essential, hidden mechanism, because the romantic reader perceives the splenetic artist’s denunciation of himself as a kind of self-sacrifice, and in trade for it allows him, in an astonishing, magical inversion, to be a hero.




“Disgust in the boat train,” Evans began a sheet of European notes in 1926 or ’27. “Philadelphia suburbs smug and endless…. Florida is ghastly,” he wrote to Ernestine Evans in 1934. “There was nothing much to the South Sea Islands,” he informed Hanns Skolle in 1932, and his companions going there were “gentlemen, flanneled fools without wickets, fleurs du capitalist mal.” “The world as you may know is about to collapse and what I say is it jolly well deserves it,” he sneered to Skolle in 1931; and yet again to Skolle in 1932 he wrote with delight, “when the time comes for the upper crust to crack you can at least enjoy the sight of anguish suffered where it should be.” Of 1929 or ’30 Belinda Rathbone reports that “Evans and his friends cheered when they heard … of how a young businessman who had watched his fortune dissolve hurled himself from the thirtieth floor.” There is the diary entry blasting Terra Alta, and there is the remarkable list “Contempt for:,” which Evans drew up in 1937 in tandem with “Contempt or Hatred for:,” a similar list by Agee; among 58 people, objects, places, qualities, institutions, expressions and manners of living, Evans cites:

art in America, the artist of America, the art lovers of America, the art patrons of America, the art museums of America, the art directors of America, the wives and mistresses and paramours of the artists of America; the etchings and the christmas cards and the woodcuts and the paintings and the letters and the memoirs and the talk and the beards or the cleanshaven faces of the artists of America; …(34)

There is also the vitriolic scrapbook Evans filled with newspaper and magazine pictures, juxtaposing the happy rich and the beaming famous (the Roosevelts, the Duke of Windsor, Jimmy Walker) with bums, masked and beaded primitives, the murderess Ruth Snyder at the instant of her electrocution, three brutish soldiers of Great Nippon, the charred corpse of a black man hanging by the neck, a toilet seat captioned “BEAUTIFUL” and so forth. One of the book’s funniest pages joins up the geriatric earmuffed Rockefeller, squinting after a golf shot, and a hairy, hulking caveman, and it is important to say that in Evans, spleen is rarely unmixed with humor. From “there was nothing much to the South Sea Islands,” he continues, “I suppose living there would be a little pleasanter … than in an American or European city, but … I’d choose the American city…. There is nobody to talk to in the South Sea Islands and nobody to do evil and diverting and stimulating and diverting things with. And it is too hot and bad food and venereal disease and rain. Apparently life is just awful everywhere, as someone has said.” And in a 1947 letter to his wife, he seems to have been softened by age–or perhaps by embarrassment at the fatal tension between them–and he mocks himself, “Beverly Hills is of course feerightful.”

To some extent these sentiments belong to what Malcolm Cowley called “the eternal warfare of bohemian and bourgeois”–“on one side, the great megaphone of middle-class America; on the other, the … disciples of art and artistic living.”Though today we associate him first with the ’30s, Evans was shaped most powerfully by the 1920swhis disdain for the “apostles,” his political atheism, would have felt right to the Hemingway of A Farewell to Arms, for example—and Evans said of himself in the earlier decade, “I was the young bohemian artist, absolutely typical, although at the time I didn’t know it.” On behalf of all those of whom Evans thought himself typical, Cowley wrote “we admired and hated those happy ones, those people competent for every situation, who drove their fathers’ cars and led the cheers at football games and never wrote poems or questioned themselves”; his friends believed, he said, that “life in this country is joyless and colorless, universally standardized, tawdry, uncreative, given over to the worship of wealth and machinery.” Harry Crosby, Evans’s first publisher, raged likewise at “civic federations … boy scout clubs … educational toys and [the] Y.M.CA. and [the] congregational churches and all this smug self-satisfaction.” America was “horribly bleak, horribly depressing,” and “this damn country … smelt, stank rather, of bananas and Coca-Cola and ice cream.” The last four items Evans lists in “Contempt for:” (though the semicolon at the end suggests that more’s still on the way) are “school spirit, Christmas spirit, gallant spirit and whatever is meant by the American spirit; …”

A more particular quality also suffuses stories about Evans in the ’20s, however, and it has in part to do with the fact that he was everywhere a latecomer. The four years by which he was junior to Hemingway made him too young for the European war, and he missed out also on the heroic literary flourishing that followed it in Paris and New York. He failed again to appear for the greatest, gaudiest spree in history (as F. Scott Fitzgerald called the Roaring ’20s): though there is no sign that he ever wanted to go for real money, he was still sharply aware that, filing bonds on Wall Street in 1928, he was in the back office, “at the bottom with the dregs”–“at five I enter big office, no cheers.” He was never offered the white-shoe path that led toward (as he so tenderly wrote years later) “one of the great side-street trusteeships which controls possibly one-sixth of the state of Utah, two cinema palaces in Montevideo, and all the ships at sea.” Spleen is not puritanism, and there is more than a scent of envy on Evans; it wasn’t money that he hated, it was the people who had it. “This island a millionaire’s paradise and I’d like to be a millionaire as you know.” He loved rich hotels, shirts by Turnbull & Asser and, when he could finally pay for one, a Jaguar. “The world … is about to collapse and what I say is it jolly well deserves it,” he wrote, “but you ought to see the new Waldorf Astoria the sixty billion dollar hostelry on Park Ave….” His resentment is intimate, like that perhaps of someone who has been left out of a will, barred from having what should have been his.

Evans the never-quite-lapsed bourgeois also enjoyed the bitter awareness that photography was thought (as mostly it still is) to be only a low-grade, low-class vocation. He would have agreed with Fitzgerald that Mr. McKee of Chapter 2 of The Great Gatsby, the photographer who says he is in the “artistic game,” was a fool. There had been no obvious model for what Evans would make–most photographers were (as most are today) tradesmen, and if he saw that the pictures of August Sander and Eugene Atget are as profound as literature, there had been no one but Kirstein and Berenice Abbott to tell him that they existed at all. Atget and Sander were obscure and unpedigreed, and Evans’s choice of such parents was itself invention. Stieglitz had proclaimed high ambitions for photography, of course, and Steichen had won celebrity, but each was, to Evans, a part of the larger problem with America: from a certain vantage the great pronouncements of the Artiste and the stridencies of the adman are two different kinds of self-indulgence, full of equal amounts of fraud.

These many streams of feeling combined to drive Evans toward an antidote, not only to what Stieglitz and Steichen were selling, but to all of an age in which “everybody was in it for the money, everybody was hoping to make a killing and get away.” It would be a scrupulously unsentimental style, from which the self of the artist would seem to have been banished. Yet despite its so-called transparency, Evans’s classic style of the ’30s is only as passive as the manner of the interrogator who lets silence do his work. It is, again, inquisitional. By declining to beautify or dramatize, each of Evans’s best photographs forces its subject to speak for itself, even to talk too much, until its vulgarity, pathos, tawdriness, hysteria–whatever its essential qualities are begin to yell from the page. That grandiose monument to theatrical death at Vicksburg, pounded by the unforgiving sun and framed so tightly that neither it nor we can avoid its ugliness, gives forth the racket of a certain bathetic opera, whose other players we know to include General Custer, MacArthur before Congress and Richard Nixon in disgrace. In their plainness Evans’s pictures are furious for honesty, and rich with scorn. “Contempt for: … the gay seventies, eighties, nineties or hundreds”–the curly fretwork dripping from a Gothic cottage near Poughkeepsie; the kingly cornice that would be right on the Via Garibaldi but has mismigrated to the brow of a dry-goods store in Alabama; the twisty vinework of an iron love seat, as convoluted as the face of a shar-pei or the hand of a leper, are ridiculous. “These pictures with all their clear, hideous and beautiful detail,” wrote Kirstein, who loved “their open insanity and pitiful grandeur.” What might seem in Evans to be the absence of point of view is point of view. His “transparent” style is never impersonal, it is entirely personal; in reality, it is not transparent.

Not all, but a great many of Evans’s pictures press their subjects with the question “is she (he, it) beautiful?” In none of the best is the answer ever given; in none does the photographer display a unitary attitude toward his material–there are always two attitudes, or more, and they vie with each other. The lanky black man in a Havana arcade wears a suit as sleek and bright as sails on the blue horizon, but he is also as watchful as a lynx, and you will not bet that he is any friendlier than a gun to the ear; the flapper girl on Fulton Street in her skull-tight cloche is beautiful, probably, but the set of her eyebrows and mouth is a lion-dog’s; the forks and spoons on Bud Fields’s wall are wretched tin junk, but they sing no less shiningly of the will to climb out of the dirt than they roughly croak of living in it; the French Opera barbershop with its jailbird stripes is as silly as Betty Boop, but it is also the obsessive work of a mad genius; the pilasters ranged around the luminous “breakfast room” at Belle Grove Plantation are a family of prestige, prowess and power, but the room is also, of course, as much of a cobweb as Blanche DuBois.

Much in the world that is not beautiful longs to be. Much that longs to be believes that it might yet be or once was, and where it dresses itself up, where it honors itself as if its potential value were actual, not merely imagined, we have what we call vanity. Evans’s marble dollhouse of a bank in Natchez has columns and a pediment rather more right for the Supreme Court, and while his photograph can’t show us the far side of the place, it will not surprise us to learn that in fact a plain wood extension once hung off the back, and that the banker and his family lived in it. Greek Revival fronts, crookedly painted signs and the white boot on the man at Luna Park were all perfect for Evans. All express the desire to be higher, better, grander, richer. All say, I am more than you think, mare than you will admit that I am, and all express as well the vain man’s suspicion that in actuality he is unbeautiful, his knowledge of failure and his horror of it. Readers of Evans’s biographies will remember that in his senior year at Andover he was voted one of the vainest members of his class. We are told that he would have had first place, but for one “exceedingly rich” boy who stormed the school with his full-length raccoon coat. In his later years, Evans would give himself a public persona part literatus magnus and part Edwardian gentleman, and Rathbone even tells us that there were people to whom he claimed (seriously or not) that he was descended from the Adamses of Massachusetts.

The negotiation among present, past and future that is central to matters of vanity would seem to have interested Evans intensely, while, as in his last Yale seminar, pure vulgarity, simple ostentation and brazen phoniness repelled him. The truly demotic–Whitman’s “profusion of teeming humanity … these ingenuities, streets, goods, houses, ships–these hurrying, feverish, electric crowds of men, their complicated business genius … and all this mighty, many-threaded wealth and industry”–was never really his territory, except perhaps in his New York subway photographs of 1938-41 and a few that followed them. He was too much a mandarin, too much a connoisseur, too alienated, funny, sarcastic and tragical in temperament ever to fly Democracy’s garish flag with Whitman’s ardor. He endorsed many times Harry Crosby’s notion (inherited from an earlier age of French Romanticism) that there was an “aristocracy of taste”–a class of man who, though his ancestry was dubious and his bank account empty, should still be counted noble for the wealth of his ideas and the fineness of his discernment. Vulgarity could often be useful to him, but mainly where there was evident in the vulgar object what its maker or owner longed to be, ,hoped to be, or had once been. While we laugh at the vulgar man every day, no one can say whether the vain man ought to be ridiculed or admired; the jury that will rule on his claims is always out; we can never say with finality who he is, it being too much mixed up with what he may yet become.

It is against this understanding of Evans that the work he did when he was with Agee in Alabama will make full sense. Though Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is at the heart of him, it is still an anomaly, unlike all the photographs he made before 1936 and most that he made after. The people of the three tenant families and the things they have created are neither vulgar nor vain, ambition and most of hope–though by no means all of pride–having most likely been ground out of them. They am as bleakly near as you can get to purity. If we imagine a sort of continuum of Evans’s many subjects, and put at one end the grossest, the most meretricious and baroque–the monument to General Tighlman at Vicksburg, for example–then the Burroughses, Fieldses and Tingles will be at the other. They are America before the invention of advertising and beyond the reach of Hollywood.

It would be too easy to think that they are at all ideal, in any way to be emulated–Evans was far too sophisticated for that kind of sentimentality. It must also be emphasized that their purity is a construct–something Evans has contrived, partly of them, partly of himself, for his own purposes. He uses it in rebuke to what he loathed–“Contempt for: … men who try to fascinate women with their minds; … Bennington College … readers of the New Yorker; “–people and places that the tenant farmers had never seen. He effects with the sharecroppers against his own world an odd, attenuated alliance, making their simplicity the measure against which the pretensions of everything else in America must be judged. “Contempt for: … for passing away, passing on, going on, leaving us; instead of dying.” The grave of a young child in barren earth is clean of all euphemism, just a clayey mound and two slabs of wood to show that someone who did not live long or well ended here, when he had reached no more than just this meager size. There is an empty plate on the mound, aiming up at deaf God a message that says everything.




America is rich in the vulgar, you cannot deny. Ours is the home of Forest Lawn Cemetery, of jingoism and kitsch, of pitchmen for Jesus, 20:mile-long motel strips, Elvis and his impersonators, Las Vegas, Trump, Cash is Trash and Cash is King, and the conviction that nobody–given our right to the pursuit of happiness–should end up any less happy than Cinderella, but this is neither here nor there. To Walt Whitman, stuff like this was inseparable from American democracy, which he believed would yet prove Europe’s greatest achievement. To Walker Evans–“Contempt for: … the public;”–it was a great deal less certain that, outside Hale County, America was anything but vulgar. People often say that his great photograph of gravestones, rowhouses and the smokestacks of Bethlehem Steel shows the hard course of a workingman’s life–born in a faceless house, then into the Satanic mill until it is time for the grave, etc.–but this reading seems to me trite, and I would prefer to think that there were at least some days when Evans looked at his picture, and smiled as he saw that fearsome, hortatory cross leading an uncouth army up the hill toward glory.

If we can say at all that there is one preeminent question at the core of Evans’s work, which ranged over so many different subjects with so many different attitudes, then it is that of whether America was heroic or merely pathetic, whether the promise of “Democratic Vistas” could ever be believed, and in grasping the question as early as 1928 he was prescient. By 1931 and 1932 it had become in some form the concern of everyone in the country. Asking it was the deepest way in which Evans touched the Depression. He was much less concerned with the sores on the flesh of America–one does not need to be present at a battle, as he wrote, to get the conflict at its root into the picture–than he was with the faults in its spirit, which became plain in that hard time.

In its net effect, Evans’s work is redemptive, as all art of lasting value must be. It is not a contemptible America that he left us with, but one that we can love, one, in fact, that he has helped us to love better. He found a way to photograph a subject so that it was transformed–so that, for example, its vulgarity and its effort to rise above itself would both be clear in the same stroke, and so that the dynamic in which they engaged would be formalized, rendered iconic and even, for lack of any other word, made beautiful. It was characteristic of Evans, though, that he allowed redemption to occur by only the narrowest of margins, and such heroism as his subjects show is a ragged one. America as he knew it was too new, excessive, self-aggrandizing and ugly for him to be generous; unlike Walt Whitman, he was not given to epiphanies (knowledge was to be found through scrutiny, not revelation), and his rejection of what he called “beauty photography”(53) (starlets, sunsets, kittens …) was total. Here, then, is the truest piece of the observation that Evans’s work is cold–not that it is impersonal, reportorial or without feeling, but that it is so passionately severe with its subjects.

Near the end of his life, Evans gave in the pages of this magazine his most perfect formulation on his medium, “The secret of photography is that the camera takes on the character and the personality of its handler.”(54) It is an idea he had nursed for more than 40 years, at least since his early comments in Hound and Horn, in which he proposed “a poetry which is not `the poetry of the street’ or `the poetry of Paris’ but the projection of Atget’s person.”(55) That the camera becomes its handler through his adjustments of physical position, framing, the print, etc., is basic, but Evans seems to be suggesting something subtler here: the notion that the photographer, in looking out of himself upon an object, a view, another human being, might find his self embodied there. If he is a complex and fault-ridden man, it follows that the most ironical, many-meaninged objects will be the ones that correlate with him best. It is not at all hard to imagine that the second vainest man in his class, sighting on 42nd Street the Negro lady in a stole as outsized as a bearskin–or on a launderer’s hoarding in Baton Rouge a fine gentleman’s regalia painted in absurd cartoon; or in the garbage at his feet the ruined image of a noble, scroll-headed column–might look upon the thing and say, as Flaubert said often of Madame Bovary, “c’est moi.”(56)

Although Evans made up “Contempt for” in 1937, contempt was already going out of his photographs–his subway portraits of 1938-41 are far more forgiving than most of what he had done before. Little about the people who sit in them is splendid and little is awful; they are complex, prosaic, flawed, with only rare flarings of beauty and a great sense of hidden history, desire and damage. If for 10 years Evans had run on the principle that the subject’s subjection to the photographer could reveal its true nature, the subway work now laid out an opposite idea–that not much at all can be told from exteriors. The little mustachioed man in the winter coat and summer hat might be Prufrock or someone like him, but most likely he is someone else again, with a different, particular, unknowable grief, which he will take out of the train with him forever when the doors bang open and closed at the next station. By granting his subjects their privacy, Evans gave them much dignity, and so, for the first time, joined to a small degree the crowd from which he had always stood aloof.

His subway photographs were Evans’s last substantial body of first-rate work, and it is commonly felt that his best subsequent pictures were isolated, very intermittent and few. The reasons for this are too various and complicated for anyone to do more than speculate about, but it is Worth saying that America itself changed after Pearl Harbor. The vulgar crowd proved itself in the next four years. The people in Evans’s subway cars came out triumphant, the accomplishment of America was shown to be real, and the moment passed in which the questions that Evans needed personally to ask coincided with those that had to be asked about the nation. A little later, in the 1960s, America would go on from its victories to glorify the vulgar, to bless the wildest doings of one’s own thing, and what Evans had understood about vanity would seem abstruse in the rant-filled air of that decade. In the ’60s such a photographer as Winogrand might plunge himself in the crowd’s madnesses, but Evans would never get his enthusiasm; he would shudder before that crowd, to which his own very subtle knowledge could have scarce meaning at all. In his later work, Evans turned more and more toward leavings of the far past, he ceased to root out the crucial paradoxes, and of the matter of the present day showed almost nothing.

In 1947 he made a wonderful picture which, though he continued to photograph for many more years, we might read as a valediction to his younger, splenetic self. It is a kind of Luna Park redux, and shows an enormous construction of steel rising far above an elevated roadway in Chicago. It still has the irony that made Evans’s work of the late ’20s and the ’30s so powerful, the joke of course being that this marvel of expense and engineering exists entirely to advertise Pabst Blue Ribbon. Yet the picture also differs from Couple at Coney Island–and here it comes as close to Whitman as Evans ever got–in that there is nothing foolish about the person in the picture. She is a woman, made to seem minute by the immense tower over her head, and in the stark, clean light where she stands, her dress fluttering slightly at the hem, she is entirely elegant. She gazes serenely out over the parapet. What she sees we cannot see, but there is great brightness there, and all the space of the continent.

We are often told that Evans’s photographs are somehow like writing, and therefore apart from art. Clement Greenberg, for example, urged them on his readers in 1946, saying that “photography is closer to literature than it is to the other graphic arts” and “let photography be `literary.'”(57) It is not unreasonable to think this way about Evans, since he had the early ambition to be a writer, gave Flaubert and Baudelaire as his prime sources and, more generally, set literature up as the highest possible achievement. He wrote a lot and with great care and nuance, and in his 50s said “with a certain ebullience,” as if even then he still felt photography to be declasse, “At Fortune they recognize that I’m a writer too.”(58) Nonetheless, the largest part of what story can do is beyond the reach of such unstaged photographs as Evans loved, which have little ability to describe past or future, or what caused what, or to give us a Tin Man, a Scarecrow and a Cowardly Lion. No such photograph can ever escape its present time or the physical world.

How, then, might Evans’s pictures be literary?

In part, perhaps, in that they are much interested in character–in what kind of person it is that has come into the area of their concern. Though they will not let us infer character from action (in a still photograph there isn’t any), they discern everywhere what wishes people deposit in their houses, beds, boots, crooked forks and rusty knives. We might suggest that Evans’s photographs are less concerned than most with the surface beauty or unbeauty of their own design, but no picture is really unconcerned with this, so perhaps it is better to say that, of all the meanings that may attach to an Evans, relatively fewer are derived from other pictures, and more refer us to the encyclopedia of life. He was mostly free of the affliction of modern art–the dialectical doctrine of the avant-garde, which holds that an artist should be read for how he upends what came right before him, as if style could supersede style the way the cosmos of Einstein undid the cosmos of Newton. Stieglitz and Steichen bothered him for a while, it is true, but in the end the world in front of him was primary. The Evans picture aims not to be any particular kind of picture, but, through the interrogation of the objects in it, to rule on what they really mean, what they are worth, what they are.

To say that his work is literary is a conceit. His pictures are, alter all, pictures, one kind of art, and Kirstein was quite wrong when he wrote (with the tired high-modernist disdain for shallow “decoration”) that, being of great import, they have no place on a wall.(59) Rather, they would have us reconsider what, after holding the building up and keeping out the rain, a wall is for. A wall is just a stage, of which we will encounter many on any day, and which may be full or bare of actors. Its purpose may be, if it was painted by Matisse, to seize for you the flux of consciousness, or may again be, flit is in Fallingwater, to teach you the history of dwelling, or, if it is in a garden by Luis Barragan, to have you exult in purple.

A wall is as fine a place as any for one to put such questions as Evans did, to the world and to oneself. In the nicest precis of him that has yet appeared in print, his friend Mary Knollenberg found an exquisite, oxymoronic way to characterize a vain man who wanted to be much that he was not, or was not yet, and whose deepest intuitions about his country concerned what it wanted to be but was not–or was not yet: he was, she said, “a self-made well-bred man.”(60) At those moments when his photographs look to me most completely transcendent, when they leave the ’20s and the Depression and even America behind, they seem to have fixed on paper the essence, the very taste of restlessly probing one’s own identity. As I halt before a small patch of black and white in the corridor on the way to the library, or at the bedroom door on my way back out to the public world, I may perfectly well step into the self of Mr. Evans for a moment and, looking into a small window that is also a mirror, see the dapper, troubled Jew on his Bronx bench, or sun-beaten, fragile Allie Mae against her crude board house, and ask, “what am I today?”

The Evans of the Archive

The current retrospective of the work of Walker Evans proceeds from the acquisition by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in 1994, of Evans’s negatives, manuscripts, notes, book dummies, diaries, letters, albums, collections and miscellaneous prints, which constitute the Walker Evans Archive. The largest part of the show will be familiar to anyone who counts Evans as the preeminent American photographer he was. Most of the photographs have appeared repeatedly in the many books and exhibitions of Evans’s work, though not all are often seen as prints, nor are many seen as vintage prints, of which the current show exclusively consists. The show does offer a few wonderful, very rarely seen pictures, including four tiny shadow self-portraits that he made in Juan-les-Pins at the start of his life as a photographer, the exquisite superimposition New York (1928-30) and his 1935 photograph of a range of black men outside the Boston Shoe Shop in Selma, Ala., in hard winter light. It also includes many pictures he made late in his life–some in color–but these reaffirm that the canonical editing of Evans, with its emphasis on his work of 1928-41, is not wrongheaded.

Two new books have been issued in conjunction with the Met retrospective. The first, a large volume entitled simply Walker Evans, should become the standard reference on the artist. If it will not replace Walker Evans (The Getty Museum, 1995), The Hungry Eye (1993), Walker Evans (National Gallery, 1991), Walker Evans: America (1991), Walker Evans: Havana 1933 (1989), Walker Evans at Work (1982), First and Last (1978) or Walker Evans (Museum of Modern Art, 1971), etc., it should still go to the center of the bookshelf, for presenting the canonical editing more fully than any of these, and for its four valuable essays. In “A Portrait of the Artist,” Maria Morris Hambourg recenters the story of Evans’s formation as an artist in the ’20s in bohemian Paris and New York, and away from the ’30s and the Depression, with which he has long been too much associated; in “The Cruel Radiance of What Is,” Jeff Rosenheim recounts Evans’s travels in Pennsylvania and the South so as to make clear for the first time how wild his artistic and private impulses were during what the photographer called the white-hot phase of his work. Mia Fineman’s “Notes from Underground” is the most detailed study of Evans’s subway work that has so far been published, and in “The Eye Is an Inveterate Collector,” she covers the work of Evans’s last years, when, instead of photographing a thing, he was often happy simply to pry it loose from the world entire, and take it home. In “The Harrassed Man’s Haven of Detachment,” Douglas Eklund discusses Evans’s work at Fortune magazine, where he played the difficult game of integrating pictures with words as at no other time in his career.

The extraordinary product of the Met’s work on Evans, though, is its second, superbly conceived and designed book, Unclassified: A Walker Evans Anthology by Rosenheim and Eklund, with an introduction by Hambourg. Unclassified presents such selections from the Evans archive as letters, proof sheets, notes, stories, reviews and pieces for Fortune, selections from Evans’s huge collection of postcards, and much more. The book takes us backstage during the performance, and shows us a consummately complex man, urbane, mercurial, bitter, funny and, again, bitter. Those shallow niceties that have long been read into Evans’s work can now go to the dumpster. The sheet of notes, “Contempt for,” and the vitriolic album of clippings from the late ’30s (both unpublished till now and known only to specialists) should change everyone’s understanding of Evans for good.



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(Text @ Leo Rubinfien, All images © copyright the photographer and/or publisher)

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