A portrait of America
Walker Evans’ documentary photography is best known for his portrait of depression era America. Two significant collections that come to mind are his book projects, Message from the Interior and American Photographs. In these photographic collections we are presented with precise images about the depression and a portrait of what is distinctly American culture.
To try to understand the photographs of Walker Evans is to put oneself in the position of being on the outside and peering in. Viewing these photographs creates a sense of voyeurism and estrangement from the subject matter that is similar to looking at one’s own middle-aged appearance in the mirror; you can easily identify yourself and yet have difficulty recognizing what you’ve become.
The photographs of Walker Evans have become a familiar part of the American lexicon and an accepted description of early 20th century life during the depression. They are often presented within the context of the Farm Security Administration photography project and yet, like their author; they are defiant against this simple categorization and stand uniquely apart from the rest.
Photographs of vacant interior spaces filled with objects and furnishings give us insight into the missing inhabitants lives. In other photographs we see the blank stares of people living in dilapidated confines within communities that are adorned with advertising signs that promote an ideal of prosperity that is in direct conflict the economic reality of poverty. There is a pattern of simultaneous contrast and artistic juxtaposition in both the images and their author. The work and the person of Walker Evans is an enigma that cannot be understood through casual observation.
To understand the imagery is to understand the man, which requires us to pierce the surface and look beyond the visual depictions in his photographs and into his life experiences and the ideas that informed the craft and positioning of the camera prior to exposure. Geographic movement, intellectual pursuit, and stubborn defiance are the ingredients that combined to make the photographs of Walker Evans visual poetry that transcends ordinary reportage and becomes art.
A cursory review of his biography initially reveals an early childhood spent within a homogeneous Chicago suburb and then a subsequent division of time spent bouncing back and forth between the gritty environment of Toledo Ohio where his father worked as an ad man for an auto manufacturer and the intellectual literary elitist environment of New York city where his mother lived. The move from Chicago, brought on by the separation and subsequent divorce of his parents, burst the insulated bubble that Evans had known in his upper middle class lifestyle that was complete with in-home servants. The divorce and leaving Chicago would create an internal fracture that would negate the sense of belonging to a single place or culture and would cultivate within him a lifelong sense of being external and removed from the very places he lived and worked.
On The Outside Looking In
Further alienation would come from stints at boarding schools where he discovered literature and became a voracious reader. In Toledo he was exposed to the diversity of working class immigrants and became aware of his father’s tireless work ethic. As Evans came of age he could no longer feel complacent about his station in life, nor could he identify with any particular social class. It was the perfect incubation for his photographic vision.
Evans would enter college and subsequently drop out and move to Paris for a time, returning upon a demand from his father to earn his own way. He would work a variety of jobs ranging from Wall Street to the New York Public Library and would live in poverty while socializing with economic and intellectual elites who were drawn towards class struggles.
Emerging from childhood and young adulthood during the depression would relieve Evans from any sense of obligation to pursue financial success equal or greater than his father and is credited with providing the freedom of idleness necessary to formulate serious intellectual and artistic endeavors. The depression itself is credited with fashioning America’s greatest artistic output.
In a 1971 interview with Paul Cummings, Evans would say about the depression, “I have a theory in retrospect that it was good for us all. You couldn’t do anything else anyway. It gave us time without the pressure of getting a job. You couldn’t get a job. I think it produced a lot of artists, or allowed a crowd of people who were on the road to being artists to stay artists instead of going off into Wall Street or Time, Inc. or some place and losing it. I stayed on; I probably would have anyway because I was very willful about it.”
Before Walker Evans began making photographs in New York in 1928 he aspired to become a writer. He had originally gone to Paris in 1926 to be closer to the literary epicenter of the time and was drawn towards romanticism and surrealist ideas but was thwarted in his efforts because he felt he could not live up to the standards set by his literary “God” James Joyce.
Evans abandoned his pursuit of words and turned towards photography. He maintained his affinity for writing and writers through his friendships and artistic collaborations with the authors, James Agee, Hart Crane, and Lincoln Kirstein.
Paradoxically it was Evan’s devout respect for the literary greats that prevented him from being confident enough to become a writer and yet it was his defiance of the photographic demigods of the time that made him a such a great artist.
In New York Walker Evans picked up a camera and entered into a field that was dominated by the artistic purity of Stieglitz and the commercial success of Edward Steichen, neither of which Evans held in high regard at first.
The depression would deter Evans from seeking a career in commercial assignments and free him to pursue photography as an artistic endeavor. However his stubborn lack of adherence to the more pictorialistic ideals of Stieglitz would drive him and photography into a new and powerful direction.
A European Connection
A visual analysis of Evans work immediately invites a discourse that combines Eugene Atget’s intimate photographs of Paris, Albert Renger-Patzsch’s dispassionate technical photographs of objects, and August Sander’s documentary typologies of people together.
Whereas Atget’s work offers a romanticized view of Paris, Renger-Patzsch work is technical, precise, and sterile. Walker Evans writes about all three (Atget, Renger-Patzsch, and Sander) in a short 1931 essay entitled The Reappearance of Photography. He described a book of Renger-Patzsch’s photographs as being,
“exciting to run through in a shop and disappointing to take home. His is a photo method, but turns out to be precisely the method that makes it said painting is no longer necessary, the world can be photographed.”
Of Atget’s photographs, Evans writes: “His general note is lyrical understanding of the street, trained observation of it, special feeling for patina, eye for revealing detail, overall of which is thrown a poetry which is not the poetry of the street or the poetry of Paris, but the projection of Atget’s person.”
This is Evans aim too. He describes his own work as an attempt to write visual poetry. While one may stop at Atget’s work and say “ah hah! I have found the essence of Walker Evans!” you would come up far short of any meaningful interpretation.
Documentary Photography as Art
Atget may provide theoretical foundation for the legitimacy of documentary work as art, but his is limited to that of a singular cultural backdrop (Paris), as compared to the fragmented America that Evans explores that ranges from New York, Pennsylvania and the Deep South. Whereas Atget’s image offer a montage of Paris, Evans puts forth a diverse collage of America and in so doing, defines what is distinct about this young country.
Evans would foreshadow his own documentary efforts by writing of August Sanders book, Antlitz der Zeit, that it “is more than a book of ‘type studies’; a case of the camera looking in the right direction among people… It is a photographic editing of society, a clinical process; even enough of a cultural necessity to make one wonder why other so-called advanced countries of the world have not also been examined and recorded.”
The books Message from the Interior and American Photographs illustrate this through the powerful effect of sequencing and editing the images that are published in these books. So strong is the importance of sequencing to Evans, that the reader is blatantly warned that they need to view the works in the precise order of the publication in order to fully understand the author’s intent.
Douglas Nickel compares Walker Evan’s American Photographs to Sergei Eisenstein’s theory of film dialectics, “in which the combination of two disparate shots was used to lead the viewer to a third associated idea not intrinsic to either of the cuts in isolation.”
The book was co-authored with the writer Lincoln Kirstein who not only wrote the text but also was heavily involved in selection and arrangement of Evan’s photographs.
Kirstein and Evans carefully constructed the sequence of images so that they would be read by the viewer and thus, even though Evans work appears to lack formalism, which gives the appearance that there is no artifice applied, there is a distinct narrative to the work created by the relationships between images.
While his images appear to be dispassionate candid observations, the authorship becomes apparent through the building effect on the reader as they move through the pages of the book and through the redundancy of the compositions.
The Illusion of Simplicity
A deeper examination of the compositions of these images reveals a thoughtful and methodical approach to photographing. Walker Evans images are at first disarming in their apparent simplicity but reveal a rigorous structure like a Haiku poem.
Lincoln Kirstein noted the process that Evans went through to laboriously produce this work that appears to be so mechanical and distant. He wrote,
“the process technically was rather complicated even from the actual sighting, clicking, etc. of the camera itself. The sun had to be just right and more often than not we would have to go back to the same place two or even three times for the sun to be hard and bright. I felt like a surgeon’s assistant to Walker, cleaning up neatly after him, and he a surgeon operating on the fluid body of time.”
Any attempt to recreate a photograph in the appearance of one of Walker Evans’ images reveals the precision and deliberate craft applied. It seems that Evans work was pure documentary in style. The illusion is the presentation of an image that appears to lack artistic style and thus is constricted to the verisimilitude of the subject before the lens.
Unlike Henri Cartier-Bresson’s application of the golden mean to his compositions, or the stylized birds eye and worm-eye viewpoints that smaller format camera’s offered from low or high vantage points, Evan’s use of a bulky 8×10 camera allowed him to carefully construct the image on the ground glass like a painter arranging elements on a blank canvas. Berenice Abbott described the benefit of working with a view camera as:
“the great virtue of the view camera… is that you see the picture on the ground glass; you are not shooting in the dark. You are composing, creating your picture as you take it.”
Furthermore, the special features of the view camera such as the swings, the rising and falling back and front-allowed for corrections and “subtle reconciliations of elements in nature.” The camera seemed designed for the creative artist. “You can manipulate the picture in a thousand ways,” Abbott continued, “so that the image expresses your sense of reality.”
The magic of Walker Evans work is that the subjects appear authentic in a way that you would only find within the frame of a 35mm snapshot and yet if you look at the images closely you will see the formal qualities of straight vertical and horizontal lines and the directness of a person who is staring directly at the lens. The images take on a spiritual aura that Stephen Spence describes as,”This aura of realism resulted from Evans’s deliberate choice of rectilinear angles, repetitive imagery, and geometric form.”
“The photographer’s preferred tool was an architectural camera that allowed him to correct for optical distortion.
The results are evident in photographs like Negro Church, South Carolina, 1936, whose ruler-straight lines are more regular than those that would be seen even by a human observer standing in front of the church. Evans composed dozens of such images; their repetition, regularity, and linearity signified the inhumanly clear vision of a functionalist, utilitarian, “machine-age” modernism.”
In my own attempts to discover Walker Evan’s style through emulation I discovered that any photographs I made that took on diagonal lines through an angular perspective lacked the visual impact that the straight forward composition had with its vertical and horizontal emphasis. Here are two of my images that illustrate this.
The former image takes on the style of Ansel Adams with his emphasis of a near-far relationship and extreme depth as compared to the latter image, which is both simplified through the reduction of elements and confrontational with his tense vertical and horizontal parallel lines.
The power of Walker Evan’s direct compositions lies in the intense self-reflection it provokes. By comparison to Ansel Adams images of deep grandeur, Evans images are abrupt and deceptively simple in appearance. There is a paradox that exists in these compositions between the appearance of simplicity and the complexity of the effort necessary for articulating it. To construct an image without an overt presentation of subjective artistic style requires a dedication to purpose and methodology that itself becomes the foundation of an aesthetic approach.
Poetry or Science?
The photographs of Walker Evans seem to operate at the very fringe of the debate between whether photography is an objective scientific document limited to discrete facts or a subjective art form with poetic interpretations.
While the art world of the latter 20th century clearly defined photography as an art form, its practitioners remain excluded from the title of artist and are instead defined by their medium and the emphasis the camera places on the real. A prolific writer, Walker Evans described his own style this way:
“When you say ‘documentary’ you have to have a sophisticated ear to receive that word. It should be documentary style, because documentary is police photography of a scene and a murder…That’s real document. You see art is really useless, and a document has use. And therefore art is never a document, but it can adopt that style. I do it. I’m called a documentary photographer. But that presupposes a quite subtle knowledge of the distinction.”
What led Walker Evans to develop this particular style? I believe it is a combination of life experiences and a pursuit of literary intellect during a period of intense political and economic turmoil. Evans read Charles Baudelaire, T.S. Eliot, and Ernest Hemingway and was mesmerized by the purity of language that described the world as it is rather than the ideological world presented in an authoritarian academic literary tradition.
While in Paris, Evans immersed himself in romantic and surrealist ideas especially the appreciation of folk art and the pursuit of anonymity through craft. Evans openly discussed his affinity for T.S. Eliot, whom Stephen Spender describes as: “Ritualistic”, He had a vision of the relationship of the living with the dead through the patterns of rituals that extend into the modern world the pieties that remain unaltered from the past. He thought that when these rituals were disrupted — and when, in deed, the observance of them was not the foremost aim of the living — there would be no connection of the living with the dead, of the present with the past.”
Legendary art critic and curator John Szarkowski conjectures that Evans was also greatly influenced by Flaubert who wrote, “An artist must be in his work like God in Creation, invisible and all powerful; he should be everywhere felt, but nowhere seen. Furthermore, Art must rise above personal emotions and nervous susceptibilities. It is time to endow it with pitiless method, with the exactness of the physical sciences.”
Evan’s was drawn to Europe based upon his literary influences and a desire to become a writer and live a bohemian lifestyle. Many American artists who wanted to challenge the status quo gathered in Paris in pursuit of a truth that can only be found through contrasting what you have known with what you are newly experiencing.
Some of the contrasts between Walker Evan’s European exposure and his return to a post-war economically depressed culture are what categorizes his work as uniquely American.
Lloyd Fonvielle writes about Evan’s work and describes it as a vision of American poverty that is unlike European poverty which had been romanticized in the work of Atget, but rather a “poverty of culture” whereby our architecture may refer to European style but is cheaply built in an industrial age by a young country that has chosen to litter the landscape with advertising in pursuit of the wealth of the “American Dream.”
Evans is a product of his times. His pursuit of photography came about during the Surrealist period in which, according to the MoMA essay on photography and surrealism, “had found a method: to expose psychological truth by stripping ordinary objects of their normal significance, in order to create a compelling image that was beyond ordinary formal organization, in order to evoke empathy from the viewer.”
In an article entitled Van Goh in Alabama 1935 Steven Spence articulates Evans connection to Surrealist Modernism this way:
“Evans’s practice claimed the mantle of modernism through a surrealist juxtaposition of disparate objects. Like the combinations of vernacular craftsmanship and mechanical precision evident in his architectural photographs, these juxtapositions often combined signifiers of the timeless and the new.”
His Interior Detail, West Virginia Coal Miner’s House, for example, brought together the curvilinear arcs of a handmade rocking chair with the machine-cut angles and photorealism of advertising signage.
Evans was particularly drawn to such combinations of mass culture and folk craftsmanship, but the trope is widespread throughout the period’s documentary photography.”
Evans would say that objects “called to me” in a way that Karl Marx or Louis Althusser would describe the interpolation of ideology, thus you can see that the poetry that Walker Evans is trying to create is the subtle balance between the power of objectivity as expressed in the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objective) movement with the romantic literary craft of Hemingway and Joyce.
The Defiant Photographer
Finally, the characteristic that stands out among all the layers of biography, ideology, and artifice and unifies the artwork and the artist, is that of defiance and independence. Like his literary heroes, Walker Evans employed the camera to present the world “as it is” without stylistic embellishment.
His “as it is” compositions would become the trademark of Evan’s FSA photographs and an act of defiance in his ongoing dispute with Roy Stryker’s whose goal of presenting images in a future tense seemed to Evans to border on becoming propaganda.
Although Walker Evan’s is forever linked to the FSA photographers like Dorothea Lange, Arthur Rothstein, and Gordon Parks, his actual tenure with the program was decidedly brief. Evans was a maverick and Stryker fired him. Later on at Fortune Magazine Walker Evans would be named an assistant editor because nobody wanted to work with him. He sidestepped art direction in favor of providing his own writing and photography.
Walker Evans stands for a documentary style that rises above mere document.
As Alan Trachtenberg points out in his book Reading American Photographs, facts alone never form knowledge. Art serves to make facts intelligible through interpretation. We use facts to form cultural truths that change over time. Such was the progression of social programs during the depression and later the establishment of civil rights in America.
With his precise photographic images Evans confronts us with a set of denotative facts about what it means to be American, and in doing so challenges us to see and develop our own connotative interpretation of the world.
To understand the power contained within these photographs requires a complex investigation of the physical and symbolic formation of these images. What appears to be without aesthetic style belies a deeply intentional approach to removing the photogenic attributes of a camera based image, which ultimately transforms these documents into sublime poetry.
What Walker Evans has managed to do is to remove our awareness of his authorship. He has managed to remain hidden as if he were not there, putting the depression era America he observed in the spotlight while remaining outside of his own photographic compositions.
By applying intellectual intentionality and meticulous technique he has created a philosophical space for the viewer to enter into the image and self reflect on who we are as a society.
Walker Evans truly is the quintessential outsider who found his way inside of each of us.
Brians, Paul. (2009) “Lecture Notes on Romanticism” Available: http://www.wsu.edu/~brians/hum_303/romanticism.html
Curtis, James C., and Grannen, Sheila. (1980) “Let Us Now Praise Famous Photographs: Walker Evans and Documentary Photography.” Winterthur Portfolio 15:1, pp 1-23 Available: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1180723
Department of Photographs. “Photography and Surrealism”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/phsr/hd_phsr.htm
Department of Photographs. “Walker Evans (1903–1975)”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/evan/hd_evan.htm
Evans, Walker. (1931) “The Reappearance of Photography.” Classic Essays on Photography Edited by Alan Trachtenberg. Conn: Leetes Island Press
Fonvielle, Lloyd (1997) “Masters of Photography: Walker Evans” New York: Aperture
Hylsop, Lois B. (1980) “Baudelaire, Man of His Time.” Conn: Yale University Press
Mullen, Chris (2009) “Walker Evans, A Small Selection” Specialty Website < http://www.fulltable.com/vts/f/fortune/menug.htm>
Nickel, Douglas R. (1992) “American Photographs Revisited.” American Art 6:2, pp 78-97 Available: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3109093
Oral history interview with Walker Evans, 1971 Oct. 13-Dec. 23, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Spender, Stephen. (1976) “T.S. Eliot.” New York: Viking Press
Spence, Steve. (2001) “Van Goh in Alabama, 1936.” Representations No. 75, pp. 33-60 Available: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3176068
Trachtenberg, Alan. (1979) “Messages from the Interior: A Reading.” October Vol 11, pp. 5-29 Available: http://www.jstor.org/stable/778233
Trachtenberg, Alan (1989) “Reading American Photographs: Images as History Mathew Brady to Walker Evans” New York: Hill & Wang