Photographs by Walker Evans are always carefully composed. In them, he gives us documentary photography,
modern art, and artifact of art history simultaneously.
Some call Evans the most important documentarian of the twentieth century. Walker Evans, however, would eschew that categorization
in favour of his own: he was an art photographer who worked in the documentary style.
New Orleans Street Corner is, at first glance, a monochrome slice of Americana. The
foreground is dominated by a large, dilapidated black bakery truck of the period, which might impede
the eye of the viewer. If you look past it, however, you will see individually-articulated,
stacked bread loaves in the store window. The picture, indeed, is full of sharp, specific detail that begs to be read. The picture plane
comprises flat images that are stacked and arranged and that sometimes overlap. Text from the truck, the store, and the commercial signs
overlap in kind. Text becomes texture.
New Orleans Street Corner, Lousiana 1936 Photo by Walker Evans
The composition emerges as a compressed plane of detailed images and information. The eyes' only relief lies in the upper right corner,
where some space is partially obscured by crossed wires. The viewer is left with little room to rest in the busy, albeit organized, street scene.
If there is a point-of-view articulated (other than the obvious crowding of our minds and lives as consumers), it is not evident.
The photographer, Walker Evans, has achieved a dispassionate view of a particular corner in America.
Below: Frank Tengle, an Alabama sharecropper, and family singing hymns (c.1935-1936)
Born in 1903 into a well-heeled Chicago family, Evans had the advantages of a good boarding school education.
In 1926 he studied at the Sorbonne
in Paris, where his interest in the camera was spiked. This would prove enough of the academy for him: he was beginning to develop his highly
individualistic and Modern ideas about art.
Evans wanted to practice photography through the lens of his own artistic tenets, which would develop
over the course of his career. What this meant, in his own words, was:
- Absolute fidelity to the medium itself, that is, frill and frank and pure utilization of the
camera as the great, the incredible instrument of symbolic actuality that it is;
- Complete realization of natural, uncontrived lighting;
- Rightness of in-camera view-finding or framing (the operator's correct and crucial definition of his picture borders);
- General but unobtrusive technical mastery.
Walker Evans, Photography, 1969
Walker Evans was no stranger to art in a greatly expansive sense. He worked in architecture in 1931, and drew illustrations for writer
Hart Crane: thus, his keen awareness of Modernist spatial qualities in art would become one hallmark of his photography.
In New Orleans Street Corner he creates claustrophobia through his lens, aware of the lack of negative space.
He admired writer Gustave Flaubert: for "...the non-appearance of author, the non-subjectivity. That is
literally applicable to the way I want to use the camera - and do." Evans also esteemed the Modernism of James Joyce, T.S. Eliot,
and Nabokov (whom Evans claimed used the pen as a camera). He wanted to strip away any notion of the Romantic from his pictures, having
admired the Moderns for doing so. Having once aspired to become a writer himself, he was at home writing text to accompany his own pictures.
Left: Landowner in Moundville, Alabama
Photographs by Walker Evans act between the worlds of documentary and art photography. In them he draws upon his considerably global knowledge
of the arts to take photography down a path not heretofore prescribed. With great insistence, he considered himself always an art photographer who
worked in the documentary style.
Walker Evans engaged in what might be otherwise construed as documentary photography. As a staff photographer for the Farm Security
Administration during the Great Depression, he enlarged the scope of his portfolio by photographing not only space and place, but people and
their existence during times of desperation. His job as staff photographer was to document the Depression while expressing the hope and help
provided by FSA programmes.
Right: Laura Minnie Lee Tengle
Evans knew this when he took on the assignment, but he used his time and earned his income making pictures that evolved his own ideas about
the art of photography. Walker Evans was not a team player. In 1937 he was fired from the project, ostensibly for that very reason. He would
not compromise his art with politics or propaganda.
Perhaps the pinnacle of Walker Evans' career came early in his collaboration with James Agee, who wrote
the text for their famous joint venture: Let Us Now Praise Great Men. Working independently, Evans and Agee produced a work that,
while documenting the reality of the post-Depression South, expressed their Modernist take on what others had romanticized or made melodrama of.
They wanted to realistically portray their subjects as art. Should readers infer pity, hope, or despair upon reading the pictures (and it was
fervently hoped that they would not) it was unintended.
Left: Floyd Burroughs, Sharecropper, c. 1936
The photograph of Floyd Burroughs, sharecropper, exemplifies Walker Evans' art photography in a portrait of the post-depression era.
In wanting to capture the reality of the person, Evans leaves all surrounding space black, creating graphic contrast in shades. The wooden
posts to the right of the subject ground what would otherwise become a floating subject.
The man looks straight into the lens as if confronting
the viewer - but with what? We would not know were it not for outside documentation of the photograph. Without knowing the provenance of the
picture, we might infer that the subject is proud, tired, afraid/unafraid, unashamed, or emotionally touched by something outside the frame
of the picture. There are no markers within the picture, such as helpless children, to elicit our pity. We are not emotionally movedalthough
we can infer a number of different emotions to Burroughs.
Right: Allie Mae Burroughs, wife of cotton sharecropper. Hale County, Alabama
The photograph is clean and precise: everything shown is in focus. Evans had wanted to work with assurance and authority and, indeed,
his composed and seated subject is solid. The structure of the subject's face seems replicated in the long grain of the wood next to him.
The physical placement or pose struck by Burroughs (or by Evans) creates another triangular form within the picture echoed in the knots in the
wood and the features of Burroughs face.
Evans would later deem photography "the most literary of the graphic arts". And indeed, there is an irony to the photograph. As one ponders
the ragged, soiled attire of the subject, it would be appropriate to wonder: Why is this man the subject of a portrait sitting? Portrait
sittings, by their very nature, are conventionally reserved for those who commission them. And the attitude of Burroughs body is not at all
out of line for a formal portrait sitting.
Walker Evans, in the 1940s, worked at Time Magazine and at Fortune. He would go on to teach
photography at Yale, expounding the commercial image as art. He would also use examples of early
advertising from his own portfolio. By 1969, Evans had distilled his own philosophy of art photography into the publication of his book
simply titled "Photography."
Photographs by Walker Evans took their rightful place in major art museums and in catalogues during his own lifetime. Unequivocating,
he had created his own photographic art genre in the process.
In Walker Evans: Photographer of America
(see cover photo above), Thomas Nau tells the story of Walker Evans' fascinating life in a manner both succinct and
thorough while captivating his reader with well placed examples of Evans' photographs. The book
is organized efficiently and beautifully with Evans' most famous work paired with each chapter.
The chapters are arranged both chronologically and geographically and give the reader a clear
picture of Evans' life, career, and the philosophy that was instrumental in both. This is an
excellent book for anybody who is interested in American art and photography and would like
to learn more about this innovative man's role in changing both fields. (Customer review.)
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