The Cruel Radiance of Walker Evans

What would we see without Walker Evans? It was he who showed us gas stations as architecture, the somber authority of barber chairs and movie posters peeling into unexpected wit.

Now, thanks to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s current retrospective of the photographer’s career (at Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts through March 4), both Evan’s eccentricity and his resounding influence come staring through: a shy, brittle personality that somehow managed to shape a nation’s tastes. With publications, diaries and letters from the Met’s archive, the show features almost 200 photographs, from soaring homages to the Brooklyn Bridge taken in the 1920s to color Polaroids of crushed beer cans, shot 50 years later. It’s hard to imagine art without him now because Evans and his followers trained us so well, to adopt what has become an aesthetic reflex: to approach everyday life as a game of selective viewing, a flea market of imagery filled with surreal juxtapositions and discarded gems. “There’s a wonderful secret here and I can capture it,” Evans told an interviewer in 1971. “Only I can do it at this moment, only this moment and only me.”

Not exactly. Evans’s methods, like that of most artists, were inventively borrowed and, with an irony likely too severe even for this famous master of irony to appreciate, much of his achievement has actually proven to be not only easy to imitate but wildly contagious. These days we encounter “secrets” all the time, “only this moment and only me” often and everywhere.

His best-known works–many of them borrowed for the current show from the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center’s photography collection in Austin–are photographs of Alabama tenant farmers at the depth of the Great Depression, the images that with James Agee’s rhapsodic prose became the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Today these pictures possess the hard glimmer of icons, having ascended with Marilyn Monroe and shaggy Lincoln into the firmament of popular consciousness. Every portrait taken of a poor woman since “Alabama Tenant Farmer’s Wife,” genuflects to the strained stoicism of Allie Mae Burroughs. Depending on your point of view, we have Evans to thank or blame for much pop and conceptual art, and for every hungry shooter who set his large-format camera up outside a shabby Southern laundromat or snapped with relish the scrawling in a public lavatory. Evans got up, and high, in the world of art by “getting down.” It’s the gravel road many hundreds of American artists have taken, from William Carlos Williams to Lucinda Williams, a shortcut to authenticity.

With good reason, we’ve begun to lose faith in this artistic pose. What once passed for daring in the arts now feels like second-hand soul, the weaving of moral fiber out of someone else’s pain. Today the well-situated artist can’t just go “up the country” anymore, unless, like the Coen Brothers, it’s in the spirit of burlesque: George Clooney’s pop-eyed performance in O Brother Where Are Thou? The film’s Coca-Cola signs, dowdy 1930s dresses and little tins of Dapper Dan are all the “common man” commodities Evans savored, appearing this time, of course, as farce. In U.S. photography, art and style, there’s obviously no going back from Evans, so where was he coming from, and where did he take us?

Born in 1903 in St. Louis, Walker Evans spent his early childhood in suburban Chicago, then bounced to two private boarding academies before entering and, a year later, departing Williams College. He wanted to be the next James Joyce and in 1926 sailed to Paris–the adopted home of Gertrude Stein and Hemingway, the vortex of artistic modernism. Through his photographs of signs and scraps of signs, the writer he’d first hoped to be persists. But Evans’s literary aims were eclipsed soon enough by his truer sensibility, that of a detective, tense and stealthy, with an eye for the mordant detail. The camera was his perfect accomplice. By 1927 he’d returned to the United States and befriended several of the darlings and princes of New York’s art scene, among them poet Hart Crane and impresario Lincoln Kirstein, who would later organize Evans’s first show at the Museum of Modern Art, in 1933.

Thanks in part to these influential friends, Evans had a fairly easy time of it, even during the Depression years. He found work with the Department of Agriculture’s Resettlement Admini-stration and then more than two decades of employment with Fortune, the glossiest of Henry Luce’s magazines (Marshall McLuhan called it “managerial Grand Opera”). In 1964 Evans took a teaching appointment at Yale’s School of Art. Photographing tattered work shoes and “labor anonymous,” he had become famous. By standards both popular and professional, his career was an immense success.

A curator leading a group through the Evans exhibition recently spoke of the photographer’s effort to cultivate an American art “free of European influences.” But was there ever a more un-“American” artist? Catalogue essays by Maria Morris Hambourg and Douglas Eklund make plain Evans’s debt to the French art movements he encountered in full bloom. Late in life, he called one of his own works, “a very painterly photograph. More so than I would like. I mean, than I care to admit. There’s Braque and Gris both in that.”

Evans’s image of a Pennsylvania general store’s front window, with saws, pans, and bottle brushes suspended above cheap dishes and a shapely iron, comes straight from the Cubist kit bag. He was also steeped in Dada and surrealism, the more cerebral strains in early 20th century French art. Many an Evans photo could be a collage, mixing up the dross of contemporary life–all kinds of textures, all sorts of media–and composing them into stable, finished wholes. In his photo of a deserted highway corner, with a phone pole in the foreground and a filling station across the road, space collapses into a pastiche of circles, cylinders, and bell shapes, pavement against wood, block lettering on brick, powerwires slicing against a cloud. The Dadaists had worked up similar incongruities into lively effects by pasting wine labels and bits of newspaper right onto their canvasses. But Evans’s photograph is both newsier and artier. It manages at once to capture a real circumstance –”Reedsville, West Virginia, 1935″–and to sunder all of its facts in a timeless abstraction.

Like the surrealists, Evans had a greater affinity for objects and structures than for people, whom he typically photographed from across the street, their faces heavily shadowed in the raking sunlight that he loved. While men and women in his pictures are usually deadpan, Evans was keenly sensitive to that force that dwells like a genie inside homely things: brooms and iron beds. His picture of a tiny South Carolina church, like many of his photographs of buildings, is really a portrait, the image of a self-possessed spirit, this one crisply proud as a dandy in a starched shirt.

His greatest debt was to Eugène Atget, a late 19th century French photographer in whose ghostly interiors and vacant streets Evans found his method and his mission: to pull at the veil of everyday appearances. But while Atget saw mystery and tenderness beneath the surface, Evans’s revelations are usually austere, desolate or snide. Many of his pieces are visual puns, the photographic equivalent of the surrealists’‚ “found poetry.” Several men load an electric sign that reads “DAMAGED” into a truck. An elaborate Corinthian column stamped in tin has been crumpled for its hubris. Pictured on a poster, movie star Carole Lombard has a black eye, while directly above, the dark oval-shaped screen on a dingy porch suggests, “This house, too, has seen a brawl.”

His photographs of street scenes, monuments, and vernacular architecture jab at human vanity. The facade of a country grocery, sandwiched between two other shotgun buildings, mimics a Greek temple very badly; over the prices for cheese and pickles, its “frieze” reads pretentiously “The Great ATLANTIC AND PACIFIC Tea Co.” Such traces of striving to “do ourselves up” bring out both Evan’s humor and a mean streak. His greatest joy seems to have been catching people and even things off-guard. Most overt are the pictures he gathered surreptitiously on New York subways by smuggling a camera beneath his overcoat. “I could hardly stop doing it once I got started,” Evans said years later. Though the prurience of this experiment clearly thrilled him, the photos themselves are bland. They point to a blind spot in his vision: his assumption that people are most intriguing or “real” when divorced from conscious work, play, conversation, or self-presentation. In fact, his subway riders all look tediously the same. (It would take a greater wit, Andy Warhol, to expose the visual emptiness of “the unconscious” 30 years later, with his eight-hour movie Sleep.) Evans took his final pictures of stripes and arrows painted on streets and, in perhaps another of his wordplays–as people have all but disappeared–manholes.

We know that Walker Evans moved among the elite, but his photographic targets nearly always are “the folk.” In several remarks cited in the catalogue, we hear vengefulness, even rage: Speaking about his group portrait of the Bud Fields family, posed disheveled and barefooted, Evans said, “I meant to scare and dismay certain kinds of people. Let’s say the smugly rich. I’d like to kick them in the teeth with a picture like that.” Yet in working to capture what Eklund calls “the intricate stagecraft behind the spectacle of modern life,” Evans exposes only the affectations of middle-class, working-class and destitute subjects. Was it simply easier to catch the pretensions of ordinary people than of wealthy types, whose “stagecraft” is better financed and rehearsed? Did Evans choose to evade the consequences of looking behind those more polished surfaces? Or had the role of the aloof discoverer in fact become Evans’s own mask, the practical pose of someone too effete to associate with “degenerate natives” but too intimidated or defiant to identify with “the smugly rich,” those whose favor had crowned his art? Neither the exhibition nor the catalogue answers these questions.

With 50 years of photography to consider, the show makes clear why his most astonishing work grew out of the collaboration with James Agee. What Evans lacked in warmth and empathy, Agee possessed at the opposite extreme, his writing saturated with fervor, self-revelations on every page. Though the catalogue quotes from both men’s journals and letters, none of these essayists explains how artists of such contrasting temperments worked out their famous and now much praised partnership. Yet it seems to have been Agee’s bold example that enabled Evans to attempt these startling portraits, to stand this close, risking the stare with which Mrs. Burroughs checks his effort to subdue her into yet another formal prize.

The photographs from Alabama have lasted well. But Walker Evans’s legacy is greater than these great works. He saw that the features of daily life called out for investigation. And he was right. Hand-lettered signs, household furnishings, streetscapes and the “semiotics” of clothing we now know as the stuff of Cultural Studies. Applying techniques of the literary modernists he admired, refining every curious fragment or suggestion of irony, he pursued photography as an art. Evans possessed the intellect and skill to reach two insights: He cut to the cruelty beneath advertising’s smiling promises, and out of cheap materials he composed grandiloquence. These have become visual clichés.

The more troubling dimension of his work for us–one that today’s documentary photographers are, at best, pained to praise — is Evans’s stance: his fascination for poverty yet his extreme detachment. “The harshest thing to say is that what you have is specimens, examples,” says longtime Observer photographer Alan Pogue of Austin. “It’s almost as if you could find the pins in their chests, like those big glass boxes of butterflies and beetles. What you miss in these pictures is going through the door. There are a lot of people gathered around the exteriors of buildings, but what you don’t see is people inside the café interacting, discussing, being involved.”

Wendy Watriss, artistic director of Fotofest in Houston, says that intractable problems arise today for photographers who set out, as Evans did, to document people of a different ethnicity or social class. “No matter how committed you are, no matter how well you use your photography to help or improve the conditions of others, you are the one who benefits and gains. You leave, they stay. If your work is good, you and [the work] are praised. The subjects are seen only through the work. Today there are very few honest ways of presenting this kind of work.”

Coming to photography during the Great Depression, Evans found social plight and met it with aesthetic standards. It is this aspect of his legacy that has come into question: Without Walker Evans, would we see less, or perhaps much more of life? His documentaries, sharp as they are, were focused through surrealist, acquisitive eyes. For a person of his time and station, with his meticulous talents, the modernist magic that turns ugly facts into elegant forms was believable, acceptable. Today we’re more likely to see that magic as convenience, or even cowardice. At least once, Evans called himself “a penitent spy and apologetic voyeur.” Evans knew he was guilty. And better than he possibly could, we know why.

Julie Ardery is the author of The Temptation: Edgar Tolson and the Genesis of 20th Century Folk Art (University of North Carolina Press, 1998).

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