PRINT March 1967

Walker Evans: Photography as Representation

LET ME BEGIN BY ADMITTING to the presumption of writing about an “art” with which I am not professionally engaged. But to my mind photography is not that dissimilar from painting and writing about photography does not seem that different from writing about painting. The ways in which they are similar and the ways in which they are not matter less to me than that they share a similar problem, so much so that I have been increasingly drawn to photography in the past few years. So when it came, I leaped at the chance to write about the photography of Walker Evans because photography to me represents a particular solution at a particular time to a problem of representation, and Evans, I feel, is one of the most pictorial photographers who ever lived.

Photography is underrated, even by photographers. It does not seem generally understood or, at least, accepted, that photography belongs to the history of form. A great deal is said about its documentary powers instead. Now this aspect of photography is crucial—a subject is always important; but I am not so sure that it is not to a great extent realized after the fact of form. I am not sure, in other words, that a photograph does not acquire much of its documentary value in time. For it is only with the passage of time that the real force of documentation becomes evident. Any old photograph will, I think, confirm this. (Anything else has to do with news.) No two painted portraits will reflect the passage of time the way two photographed ones taken years apart will. For the photograph, that is, a photograph which is involved with making a visual statement through photography, endures not only because of its cumulative documentary effect, but because like any other visual expression, it has been given form, a form consistent with itself and the medium. For the moment I can best define this form by implication. A photograph cannot “simplify”; it cannot idealize a motif. It can only pick the ideal moment in which to represent the motif. Photography shapes time, not things.

Yet photography was, after all, invented to speed up the process of representation. Photography is, therefore, inherently, inevitably, illustrative. As such it is a graphic art and subject to historical laws. The particular quality of its illustration (at bottom, said Berenson, illustration is representation) derives from its effort to achieve a distinct photographic identity. But in the process of extricating itself, not, as is commonly believed, from a pictorial relationship to reality but from a bad pictorial relationship (it was, that is to say, not the influence of painting on early photography that is the issue, but the influence of bad painting; vide Rejlander’s tableaux and certain efforts at photographic allegory, didactic illustration, etc.), photography had no choice but to work within mechanically imposed limits of representation. That this representation was accomplished mechanically, that its illustrative bias was enforced by its capacity to render detail, does not alter the fact of its being representation. Photography, in other words, is no more limited technically than any other medium. Its limits are those of the illustration inhering in its technique.

Thus it fell to photography to become the repository of the impulse to representation just as gradually pictorial art was divesting itself of it. In effect, photography inherited the tradition of humanist illustration as it was shaped in the image of man and the rationalized universe of the Renaissance (which, incidentally, developed the precursor of photography, the camera obscura). In more than a manner of speaking, photography is secular illumination, and a friend’s suggestion that the true destiny of the photograph is the book makes a lot of sense. Consequently, at a time when the representational impulse is attempting a comeback in painting, photography provides—aside from its own intrinsic pleasures—a source in which the nature of the illustrative element can be contemplated for both instruction and inspiration.

Illustration, as Berenson has pointed out, is everything that is not “decoration,” everything, that is, that does not have “intrinsic quality” as does color, composition, line, etc., lending themselves toward the creation of “tactile values.” The photographer is therefore obliged to “structure” his illustration in a way commensurate with its scale and its content so that it does not become merely illustrative (like commercial photography) or so dominated by its narrative that it succumbs to the picturesque or the sentimental as did much of the “art” photography in Life magazine’s recent “Photography Issue,” which was simply perverse. The best illustrative art is never only illustrative. But photography can never be decorative in the plastic sense, because it cannot control spatial depth; even when the pictured motif is flat, there is always some space there because, working directly with light, the photograph cannot exclude atmosphere. Also, because its documentary prowess does not allow it to control the surface with imposed general patterns, neither can photography ever be monumental in the pictorial sense. Huge blowups merely enlarge the illustration, never the form.

Film is the only way in which still photography can be fully monumentalized in truly photographic terms. The motion picture, releasing a photograph’s frozen moment, also releases its movement and extends its scale in time rather than space. Photography is too bound to the facts to be monumentalized in space. (Which may explain, incidentally, why film spectaculars are such failures. The photograph is too naturalistic to be epic—again a problem of scale.) In other words, film substitutes temporal values for the tactile values of plastic art.

Thus when I referred to Walker Evans as the most pictorial of photographers I referred simply to his profound ability to realize the documentary and therefore illustrative element of photography visually. And visually here must mean that he makes a photograph not only a statement of fact but a statement in sheer representation, of which the facts are necessarily an important aspect, indeed, the very aspect which gives photographic form its particular configuration.

Evans has just had, in quick succession, two exhilarating exhibitions, and these have been augmented by the publication of two collections of his photographs. The Museum of Modern Art showed forty-one portraits which Evans took with a hidden camera on New York subways from 1938 through 1941. (Evans is reported to have withheld them from publication and exhibition for more than two decades out of respect for the privacy of his unsuspecting models.) This was followed by a nearly forty-year retrospective at the Robert Schoelkopf Gallery. I simply do not know when the last time was, if ever, that a photographer was so honored by an established art gallery that specialized only in painting and sculpture. The retrospective included works from all of Evans’ major periods and publications, including the new ones, the classic American Photographs of 1938 and Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the book he produced in collaboration with James Agee.

There was a representation of his stirring Depression photographs which convey the enforced idleness and deprivation of the period with a formal simplicity and directness that was Evans’ way of retiring before the terrible truth and letting it speak for itself, which is more than Agee did. So too with the portraits in which the same tactful artlessness enlarges both form and content. Finally there are some recent pictures of rubbish on the ground which, devoid of architectural lines to organize shape and value, are “impressions” in which I miss the assertive shyness and clarity of his peak works.

The books accompanying these exhibitions are creditable enough, though one is too fat, the other too lean. The fat one, Many Are Called,1 has the misfortune assigned to it of inevitably dissipating the concentrated force of both the portrait exhibition, exquisitely installed by the director of the Museum’s photography department, John Szarkowski, and the portraits themselves by reproducing not 41 but 176. This is too many for the single category despite their becoming a simulacrum of the crowd from which Evans plucked their faces. And besides, black and white reproductions, with their stronger contrasts, cannot reproduce the soft sepia greys of the aging originals. Furthermore, the paperback edition is at least one-eighth of an inch narrower on the right margin than that of the hard-cover copy, producing a different frame. This, however, seems less noticeable and is less annoying now than when I first noticed it (when, that is, the impact of the exhibition, a masterpiece of installation as restrained and as rigorous as the prints themselves, was still fresh in mind)2 The book, which contains a heartbreaking photograph of a blind subway musician that was not exhibited, is nevertheless an indispensable volume.

The lean volume is Message From The Interior, published by a new, small quality publishing house, The Eakins Press, named in obvious homage to the American artist, but in this case symbolizing the slightly anachronistic taste of the book itself which is neither quite sumptuous nor conservative, both of which it tries to be. Loosely tied to the retrospective in which its prints were included, Message From The Interior reproduces in a large (14 x 14 1/2'') format twelve interleaved sheet-fed gravure reproductions of architectural interiors—lofts, tenements, abandoned mansions and the like—though doubtless a double meaning is intended by the title. I make the niggling point about the books’ appearance because twelve prints are as nothing in the life of a productive photographer, so that these function mainly as surrogates for the more expensive originals, a few of which are hardly Evans’ best. As for the quality of the gravure reproductions, Evans apparently had a hand in the production of the book and if he accepts the plates, then they are certainly good enough for me.

There are two related issues raised by these books and fortunately the exhibitions helped to clarify them. The prints that Evans uses for his books are apparently different from those that he uses for exhibition. He crops them differently and frequently reproduces them larger than the salon versions. Those in Message From The Interior are reproduced much larger than their exhibited equivalents. The question is, which is the original or the official version? In addition, cropping alters the original subject drastically, or makes two subjects out of one. For instance, plate 74 in Many Are Called is of a woman and a mongoloid boy. The museum version shows only the head of the child, blown up somewhat. Other exhibited prints that I could check were similarly miniaturized, to an advantage the significance of which goes to the heart of the matter of photographic scale. An example of another kind of cropping, involving only slight adjustments of the frame, is plate 42, showing a man and a woman with a child seated between them. The reproduction is altered three-eighths of an inch on the left and right margins, wider on the left, narrower on the right. In this reproduced version more of the man is visible; in the original, more of the woman is visible. Frankly, I like both, prefer, I think, the original, but again, this raises the question of which version is to be the official one. It can of course be argued that both are originals because each change creates a new print. But if I were a photographer this would make me very nervous, since it appears to support a frequently voiced contention that photography is too ruled by chance to be art, or important art. Somewhere I made a note that a good photograph is one in which chance is a marginal factor, either because it is anticipated or because it is ignored. In any event chance is never an aspect of a vision, but only of its circumstances.

The problem of scale is more fundamental to the issue of representation. As I shall suggest shortly, photography does not represent space but facts, and facts are what they are, no more, no less. Therefore, to enlarge a print well beyond the size of the negative seems to me to introduce a visual element outside of what was there in the original vision. Inflated scale is unrelated to the facts which, when the size of the picture goes beyond a certain point, can no longer add to the definition of photographic form. I do not necessarily think that the prints in Message From The Interior are too large, but they certainly cannot afford to be any larger.

As a photographer, Evans suggests a cross between Atget and Edward Hopper. He has the French photographer’s sensitivity to particular objects as characteristic types of their class (thus a series of objects renders a cumulative portrait, of a single class of things, be they people, places or buildings). And he has Hopper’s unornamented, Puritanical vision. In fact, an early photograph by Evans, Main Street Block, Selma, Alabama, 1936, very much resembles Hopper’s equally classic Early Sunday Morning, painted six years before. But Evans is not averse to ornamented things, like gingerbread facades and fancy metalwork. Nor is he averse to clutter, to squalor, even to chaos. On the contrary, he is rather drawn to things and people as they are strewn across the landscape of time or just across a room.

It is the randomness embodied in their arrangement that he lacks in the tautest composition I know of outside of painting. Evans has a feeling for planes and flat surfaces that is virtually Cubist. At the same time, his feeling for contrast is on the bravura side, however repressed. His recurrent cropping therefore may reflect an uncertainty of edge. In other words, Evans is also a child of Cézanne.

Not surprisingly, then, a system of checks and balances exists in Evans’ photographs between subject and design, the latter restraining the former from formalism, the former humanizing the latter. Not incidentally, Evans is a midwesterner (St. Louis) who went East and stayed there. It seems too pat an observation, and yet it is somehow appropriate to a man who for forty years has always composed his photography with a spare elegance that contrasts with an almost perverse attraction for the ordinary, the provincial and even lower orders of taste. His tactfully brutal Depression photographs are justly famous and my image of Southern, rural, small town America (where in fact I grew up) is confirmed by Evans’ recurrent vision of the curious vacancy of a sun-struck, waiting, Sunday kind of town.

As I have said, Evans sees a subject as a related series of types which sum up a class of motifs, like buildings, or a state of mind, like the Depression, or a condition, like vacancy, though he sees ideas in the visual terms of people, places and things. The subway portraits are the most dramatic example of his cumulative style. In thus asserting types to evoke a prototype, and vice versa, Evans exploits with a sagacity bordering on genius photography’s propensity for fragmenting nature, thus compelling a sort of serialization of the subject. For it is the essence of photographic representation not merely to capture the moment of a thing but to isolate its utter temporal density. Photography cannot impose a symbolical order on things, as in plastic art, which is not limited in time, because it is limited not only to the moment, but only to things seen in a given moment. Thus, no matter how wide the angle of the lens is, the camera can produce only a fragment of reality. Evans, like Atget, whom he obviously admires, exaggerates the fragmenting nature of photographic representation either by cropping so that forms are literally fragmented, or by isolating a whole object, such as a shanty, and “shooting” it frontally so that its status as a single object, and therefore one of many, and very like, is emphasized. Thus Evans can crop a print to produce the random effect from edge to edge, and then crop the same print to isolate and frontalize an aspect of the motif.

Despite the anxiety that may be expressed by re-cropping the same print, Evans knows better than most photographers where the photograph ends, or where it should end. He dry mounts no photograph without a frame, insisting that the edge be emphasized, especially as it represents his decision as to where the photograph ends. To insist on this linear precision and yet to accommodate an unclassical kind of order creates an effect that can be called a “whole fragment.” For there is something both determinate and indeterminate about Evans’ photographs and, as a number of superfluous portraits suggest, the moment he relaxes he falls over into arbitrary arrangement.

This preoccupation with the photograph’s edge carries over into reproduction. Evans apparently permits no photograph of his to “bleed” off the end of the page. Berenice Abbott’s book on the photographs of Atget was the victim of this desecration by layout. The point is that a photograph is not a mural, and bleeding a photograph gives it a muralesque function, since it is scaled to the page as a mural is to its wall, rather than asserting its photographic dimension with channels of white space. This is not to say that a photograph is devoid of all monumental implication. On the contrary, the successful photograph is one which develops a largeness of line and mass for all its detail, and in this respect I think Evans is simply unsurpassed in modern times. Still this is the monumentality of the utterly intimate, excluding the heroic.

But cropping did not begin with photography. It was already a significant feature of Mannerism, as were other photographic peculiarities, notably false, irrational or exaggerated perspective, distortion (attenuation), and a highly unclassical space in which it was sometimes difficult to determine the central action. For Mannerism signaled a rejection of space classically confined within the edges of the canvas and not running off them. Photography, in other words, institutionalized “mannered” vision, and the Impressionists and post-Impressionists followed suit. Manet’s space is at first traditionally contained; later it runs over the edge. Thus a canvas like the Execution of the Emperor Maximilian could be mutilated, yet have two of its fragments look completed, whole. Degas was a master of cropped composition and was, in fact, utterly fascinated by photography. But it was cropping on a monumental scale that produced the “field”—Monet, Pollock, Louis, Poons. But cropping is also a feature of the new realism of painters like Pearlstein and Beal (and, as I paint, I crop too). Thus, there is probably a direct relationship between the invention of photography, the development of field painting and the serialization of perception.

Meanwhile photography has at least once in its history been in a position where it was actually the leading visual art, just as at one time, book illumination, of which photography is the modern descendant, was the leading form of painting at the time of the International Style as was “well attested by the miniatures of the Trés Riches Heures du Duc de Berry.”3 Specifically, I believe that roughly between the two “world wars” of this century, photography, and subsequently film, were in a stronger position artistically speaking, than any painting or sculpture in America and most of the same in Europe, where the Cubist mainstream was mainly filling out its time and the new movements were too private to promote the needed formal reform in art which really did not get seriously underway until the mid-forties. Imagine. Walker Evans and Jean Renoir were contemporaries, not to mention Stieglitz, Coburn, Adams, Strand, Brandt, Abbott, Steichen, Weston, Man Ray, etc.

Because of their mutual concern with the problem of representation, photography and painting have been indissolubly linked to each other’s development. Photography could only have been conceived as a means of representation when classical form no longer served contemporary purpose, when its plastic base was becoming decadent, when indeed it was preparing to succumb to naturalism. This can be put another way; that is, that photography assisted Romanticism’s rejection of classical canons of representation, paving the way for the development of Impressionism, whose impulse it certainly shared and which for a time it attempted to emulate representationally.

But if photography’s hegemony in the area of representation was linked to the decline of illusionism in painting, the reverse might be true in other circumstances. Specifically, there is probably a connection between signs of a stagnant if not desperate condition in contemporary representational photography (photography, that is, where a concern with representation as such differentiates it from the more illustrative kinds, such as news or scientific photography, which is certainly not experiencing any sort of “decline”) and the current reappraisal of the possibilities of illusionist painting.

Symptoms of an impasse are not hard to find. Photography’s willingness to cooperate in mixed media art suggests a crisis of identity whose roots in fact go back many years to the rayograms of Man Ray, to the development of montage and the films of Eggeling and Richter, all of whom sought to extend photography beyond the limits of its illustratively biased representation. With the development of sophisticated equipment, larger and larger blowups became possible and soon that contemporary aberration, the photographic mural, announced a crisis in scale which was particularly evident in that correspondingly aberrant exhibition, Edward Steichen’s The Family of Man. To make one final observation on scale, this time as it relates to notions of style: as there are no primitives among photographers, since the camera does the drawing, there can be no grand style in photography since the camera cannot generalize.

Finally, in films like Andy Warhol’s Sleep and Empire State, the crises of still photography and motion pictures meet. Indeed, the “documentary” in underground cinema is really a pretext for a kind of action painting with filmic form and the hysterical demand for a visual cinema turns out in practice to be virtually anti-photographic mainly because documentary continuity is destroyed or abandoned.

I assume the existence of more talented younger photographers than either I can name or know of firsthand. But it has been some time since photography has offered us anything new in the way of representation. Given its technical constitution, it would seem particularly difficult to do so and it may be that its representational potential, at least the most dramatic part of it, has run its course. Photography’s classical period seems to have ended, and like Flemish art after the 15th century it now seems to offer us refinements of a great tradition or a sensationalism of form and content that is not even its own. And if one considers that some of the best photography was made during the Depression and that so far the Era of Civil Rights has produced nothing comparable, it becomes evident that photographic representation is not as strong as it was.

It is, meanwhile, and finally, interesting to note that in that tasteless and ambiguous representational area between Pop realism and the more radically revisionist illusionism developing in New York, photography is asserting an exceptionally strong influence or playing a big role, to put it more accurately, in the work of artists like Kanowitz and Pistoletto. Which means, I suppose, that misery, as always, and still, loves company.

Sidney Tillim


1. Houghton, Mifflin, 1966.

2. Speaking of which, it is a relief to note the change from the rhetorical installation practiced by Mr. Szarkowski’s predecessor at the Modern, the pioneer photographer, Edward Steichen.

3. H. W. Janson, History of Art, p. 281.