PRINT November 1978

Color Photography: The Walker Evans Legacy and The Commercial Tradition

RECENT COLOR PHOTOGRAPHY HAS BEEN both acclaimed and condemned for owing its inspiration to vernacular images. In William Eggleston’s Guide, John Szarkowski claims that “today’s most radical and suggestive color photography derives much of its vigor from commonplace models,” situating Eggleston and others in a tradition derived from the “Kodachrome Amateur.” Although Szarkowski discusses capacities that allow for the transformation of such influences into art—i.e.“intelligence, imagination, intensity, precision and coherence”—he never quite defines how any of these factors work. But the idea of the vernacular image has come officially to obscure color photography’s very definite heritage.

An air of unstudied casualness certainly derives in part from the careless grace of the memento-conscious snapshooter. But two other photographic traditions have played a significant role in formulating contemporary color vision: the legacy of commercial photography in both advertising and journalism (an influence that is continually ignored) and the work of Walker Evans, which is always evoked, even if only in passing. Obviously enough, Evans opened the way, in terms of subject matter, for all the American-scene photography that followed him. But his contribution of a stylistic template derived from a set of attitudinal examples is less obvious, especially since we are dealing with an emergent color vocabulary that is usually presented as being outside the black-and-white tradition.

Walker Evans took photographs as a kind of rebellion. Born wealthy, but not participating in his birthright, Evans began instead recording the birthright of others. A fellow traveler by circumstance, Evans was able to assume a dispassionate posture. Once he began working for the W.P.A. small-town and rural life became his subjects. Light years away from the affluent Midwestern suburb of his youth and therefore distinctly the “other,” Evans was provided with the distance needed to achieve his goal of an art “that would seem reticent, understated, and impersonal.”1 Lincoln Kirstein explained Evans’ stance as a “purely protestant attitude: meagre, stripped, cold, and, on occasion, humorous. It is also the naked, difficult. solitary attitude of a member revolting from his own class, who knows best what in it must be uncovered, cauterized, and why.”2 Evans’ rectitude is evident in his photographs: so is the solitariness of his vision. The spare emptiness, even of many photographs with people in them, is striking. People become miniaturized, reduced to the texture or pattern of the whole. In one photograph, two billboard painters become equalized parts of a figure-ground confusion between the painted scene, foreground and background.

To construct his reticent and impersonal vision, Evans used the flattest possible statement. He often gives the impression of photographing things head-on, and even at an angle his subjects look frontal and symmetrical. He creates an austere geometry, anchoring form either in a web of linear attachments or positing it as a pure geometric whole firmly dominating a particular site. Evans never crawled up on things. He was always far enough removed that an object was situated in space, but close enough to allow the thing itself to dominate. Despite his seeming preoccupation with a dry veracity, Evan’s pictures convey the feeling that he had just passed something by and had unwittingly discovered monumentality.

Of the color photographers who have received attention over the last several years, Stephen Shore, William Eggleston and Joel Meyerowitz all share in Evans’ legacy to one extent or another. Kenneth McGowan straddles both the Evansian and commercial traditions, while Neal Slavin depends wholely on commercial tradition. Shore has devised the most singular vision, and it is he who engages Evans in the most intricate manner.

When Stephen Shore’s work was shown at the Museum of Modern Art in 1976, the predominant response to it occurred in the form of a question, namely, what was going on in those, photographs? Uninflected or cluttered space prevailed, as if none of the things in them had any more importance than any other. One looked at Shore’s photographs in an attempt to find the point of them. People noticed a debt of subject matter to Evans, but Shore was criticized for banality, detachment and boredom. In fact, Shore was continuing several different aspects of a well-established tradition, a fact probably veiled just because the photographs were in color.

First, in terms of subject matter, he took the American scene again. He chose a different class, however, recording the structures and artifacts of the middle rather than the lower class. But this time there was no cutting edge. His adoption was essentially formal, except where it became personal. Next, he utilized the attitude that had characterized Evans—one of reticence, impersonality, understatement. Max Kozloff wrote about Shore’s detached response, saying that “if his art illustrates anything, it is the theme of being alone in color, a solitary in a lavishly rendered brick, grassroots and plastic America.”3 This is certainly true, but one wonders why he might need to illustrate the condition of being alone in America. Shore, one suspects, is not looking for anything as much as he is formulating personal metaphors.

Shore’s work divides into two major categories: how things look, and how distance feels. His most successful photographs are those which convey a sense of distance, which implies distance from something. Nominally, Shore photographs certain aspects of the industrial landscape—gas stations, parking lots, intersections, movie houses and urban skylines. In his most moving photographs these things virtually disappear, dissolving into distant focal points or breaking into generalized masses in carefully orchestrated formal patterns. The largest form in a picture taken in Amarillo is a cluster of short, bushy weeds in the foreground. A gravel parking lot extends in front of and beyond the bushes, sliced through by a strip of barren street. Low buildings in the far distance occupy not even a tenth of the picture, forming a horizontal band across a space divided into a cloud-filled sky and a deserted cement expanse. Shore chooses to fix images at moments that resonate with emptiness.

Our problem with Shore’s work occurs over his reticence, his ambivalence. His “subject matter” is ideal for expressing an alienated vision, especially in light of the photographic tradition of cultural critique. But, as John Berger has noted: “Every photograph is in fact a means of testing, confirming and constructing a total view of reality.”4 Presumably this applies as much to the photographer as to the viewer. The emphasis must fall on Shore’s posture rather than on his subject matter, the posture of someone standing at a purposeful remove.

Some of Shore’s most recently exhibited photographs were taken at the Yankees’ training camp in Florida. Few more thoroughly American institutions exist: the subject matter would appear to be all. But baseball players, unlike Shell stations, move around. They have a human presence—something which Shore very rarely confronts directly. One way to deal with the mobility of human subjects is to use static situations. The photographs that function most successfully are all taken from remote vantage points. When Shore moves any closer to the players, the photograph usually disintegrates into a purely journalistic or informational portrayal. Here compositional strategy is a point of difference between Evans and Shore: Evans formed singular masses; Shore divides his fields horizontally into halves or thirds. It is much more difficult to create cleanly divided picture fields if you are right on top of your subjects, acting as if the subjects were out there, than if you consign them to minute roles within a greater whole.

Scattered throughout Shore’s body of work are images in which he overcomes his sense of distance by bridging a spatial gap. In the Yankees series, where close-ups of rosin-bags, bats, a mitt on the wall. show him emphasizing things in themselves, the results are clumsy and simplistic, in view of the pure formal elegance of which he is capable. Their importance is that they are indicators of human presence rather than human absence. But in their over-emphasis on subject they fail. Shore tries to temper disaffection with sentimental renditions of discarded emblems.

The third element Shore inherited from Evans is the use of light as an expressive force. For Evans a clear, crystalline light reiterated the spare simplicity of his compositions (and therefore his subjects), concentrating attention on broad forms or specific situations in an emphatically direct, unfettered presentation. When Shore uses this clean, direct light, it serves basically an instrumental function. And his most expressive use of light, again, appears in his representations of distance.

Normal daylight illumination is provided by a mixture of sunlight and skylight, the latter being composed of short-wavelength light that appears to be blue. As objects recede into the distance the progressively denser blue atmosphere mutes tone and shape, an effect traditionally known as atmospheric perspective. Especially in his finely detailed vistas. Shore favors a palette that stresses the blue end of the spectrum. By doing so he exaggerates the effect of skylight overall, and the effect of atmospheric incidence in particular, producing cool tonalities across the field.

A photograph taken in Fort Worth in 1976 shows a blank, uninflected gray-white sky, dead still and cloudless. The only indication of atmosphere is a white haze that eats into a hillside covered with peaked industrial buildings, receding telephone poles and trees. A murky river in the foreground, broken into two levels by a man-made waterfall or lock, is bracketed by a strip of sidewalk and a rectangular patch of concrete on the opposite bank, all reflecting the silvery white haze.

Color functions most effectively for Shore here, with a pale, reduced palette intensifying the white atmosphere and the empty expanses. Cold tonalities stress the inert, deadpan beauty of these photographs. Shore’s contribution in the use of color is to make it a vehicle for content, but really only in the pictures of distance; otherwise, color retains a basically descriptive function. Finally, what he shares with Evans, aside from form, is the “meagre, stripped, cold” sensibility that fashions the surface of a social landscape as a very external reality.

Kenneth McGowan also works in color and also takes the American scene as his subject. Scouting the landscape in Southern California, he records the indigenous phenomena; flocked Christmas trees on snowless lots, television personalities, sunbathers, drive-ins, miniature golf courses. Working as a commercial photographer doing magazine assignments and album covers since the early 1960s has given McGowan an incredible facility with color. His color is gorgeous, and he is one of the few color photographers who is able really to compose with it, splaying chromatic correspondences across an image in an almost painterly fashion.

But there is a curious disparity at the heart of McGowan’s images. He works in the street-shooting tradition, catching odd juxtapositions and diverting interactions. Implicit in the images is a criticism of them, or at least there is the implication that there is something amusing within them. Preening oily sunbathers are squashed next to swimming pools, multi-turreted miniature golf courses spring up along freeways, castles and all, and Rolls-Royces loom in front of Art Deco movie studios. But McGowan’s facility dooms his images to ambiguity. The color is so beautiful that we get stuck in it, floundering in esthetic reaction. We are not sure what our attitude is to the images, nor can we ascertain the photographer’s.

Occasionally McGowan uses his commercial intelligence to his own ends, taking the artificiality and isolation of product photography and tightening and compressing—therefore controlling the space. In Nancy Walker he moves just close enough to show the anxiety-stricken television star against a bright blue sky and flowering oleander bush. Artificiality rebounds. She stands in a rapt, nail-biting meditation, calmly miming her discomfiture. A bush behind her, covered with pink and white blossoms, looks fake, while the blue sky, although crossed with telephone wires, appears as a backdrop. By isolating a few elements and pressing closely in on them, McGowan plays off the hothouse concoction of commercial images.

McGowan’s winning use of color sells us on his images, the seductiveness of the color gaining precedence over the image as image. Where color can carry the expressive burden, this works just fine. Thus in Day of Fire a dull orange atmospheric glow reflects off an automobile trunk. Whether this is one of California’s frightening brush fires or one of its equally frightening smogs is difficult to tell. The orange light itself is the subject of the image, tantalizing and ominous. Mainly, however, we find ourselves looking at images that we feel we have already seen, except that they’ve never been so beautiful before.

Especially in an industry that demands constant “innovation” (like the pop music business), a photographer has to construct extravagant or bizarre images that grab consumer attention (in ways that are probably based on an art director’s idea). McGowan’s images have the same feeling to them, luring us with brilliant color into imitations of social commentary.

Commercial photography, then, is another influence on color photography. Advertising photography presents highly manipulated artifacts and situations as the desirable apex which can be attained by anyone if certain rules are attended to. For women, one’s femininity, desirability and even one’s admission to a higher, more privileged social status, can be attained by concocting a schematized pastiche of cosmetics and clothing. By acquiring material, one acquires the best life has to offer. Media-oriented commercial photography is a means of livelihood that by definition caters to the needs of an art director or a client. It has had a pervasive effect on the notion of photography in general.

Neal Slavin has worked as an advertising and editorial photographer since the middle 1960s. The entire orientation of his “noncommercial” work seems to have been shaped by the one-shot, novelty-prone ethos of ’editorial concept photography.

When Two Or More Are Gathered Together is a book of group portraits by Slavin based on a single idea: “When a group presents itself fully to the camera, revealing the totems and markings that make it unique and individual, then that group will simultaneously reveal the innate sense of belonging . . . groups . . . are the American icon.” Although this sounds like a juicy idea, the magic-riddled vocabulary here explains nothing about the content of the photographs, serving, rather, to coat the endeavor with a disarming mixture of sociology and voodoo.

The various groups are composed of people bound together by employment, recreation or self-help. Within each photograph there is the curiously rote arrangement of any group shot, revealing that people look self-conscious when they pose (or don’t pose) to be photographed. Slavin sidesteps responsibility even for structuring the image by turning the group’s arrangement into an element of group expression: “I just picked the location and set up the lights. The people all arranged themselves; they made the pictures.”5

One example can serve for all. Men in basic training at Fort Dix form an angled line on an open field. Their gas masked faces and olive drab figures provoke an apprehensive amusement but tell us nothing of the experience of basic training. Here the simple inclusion of information in the form of a prop constitutes the meaning of the image.

Slavin also engages the myth of the camera’s capacity to discover truth through its ability to record likeness and detail (“Photographs emphasize detail and give that detail importance . . .”). He records a multitude of details, which, in conjunction with his hyped, tingling, super-saturated color—another legacy of commercial photography—usually blends into indiscriminately filled colored expanses. In the most successful photographs detail and color link to form a tapestry-like field, as in the picture of the Philadelphia Mummers in pink-, gold- and white-feathered costumes standing in the snow. Otherwise, because Slavin pumps his color for maximum overall saturation, he makes the aura of the color the viewer’s predominant experience—which is, incidentally, something that can only be seen in the original prints.

Ultimately, Slavin proposes that the act of choosing a situation has within it some readily identifiable meaning, the way advertising proposes that choosing things has a readily identifiable meaning: for instance, one is discriminating, intelligent, singular, or otherwise special. He counts completely on eliciting the meaning embedded in our preconceptions about his subjects rather than on generating evocations out of the image structure itself.

Between Evans and the commercial world, it is Evans who has had the more pervasive effect. He began a tradition of visual social critique that has affected photography for the last 40 years and that has received tremendous institutional support (especially from the Museum of Modern Art). generating a school that extends into the “new topographers” as well as the “new” color photographers. The idea of social commentary has been absorbed, digested and reduced to pure formalism. Visual critiques of the American scene are now natural photographic pastimes.

Carol Squiers



1. John Szarkowski, Walker Evans, New York, 1971, p. 10.

2. Lincoln Kirstein, ed., American Photographs, New York, 1938, p. 197.

3. Max Kozloff, “The Coming to Age of Color,” Artforum, January 1975, p. 35.

4. John Berger, The Look of Things, Essays, ed. Nikos Stangos, New York, 1974, p. 182.

5. New York Magazine, October 11, 1976, p. 61.