PRINT April 1981

From Walker Evans to Robert Frank: A Legacy Received Embraced and Transformed

IN 1959, GROVE PRESS PUBLISHED The Americans, by Robert Frank. Within a short time this book was recognized, at least by other photographers, as a masterpiece. Because of the force of his vision, and because he gave up the still camera for filmmaking only a few years after the publication of his book, Frank came to be regarded as a kind of Rimbaud of photography, an anarchic poet who, with the speed and brilliance of a comet, had suddenly appeared, flared and then was lost to sight. That Frank’s great book might have owed something to—in fact, might even have been born of—his knowledge and love of another great body of photographic work appears to have been unimaginable to those who might have considered the idea. The harsh, spontaneous grace of his pictures seemed to deny the possibility of precedence.

Frank has said, however, that the photographs of Walker Evans influenced his work, a statement which has been only casually acknowledged by the few critics who have discussed the two photographers in relation to one another. Since the current view of Evans is that of an artist who, almost paradoxically, created the most magisterial and emblematically just image that we have of America during the Depression, Frank’s connection to the older photographer’s work has been seen as only that of someone who dealt with the same general subject—working-class America—in a brutally opposed manner.

A close examination of Evans’ American Photographs, published in 1938 by the Museum of Modern Art, New York, reveals that to a significant extent Frank used Evans’ work as an iconographical source for his own book. It also shows that Evans’ view of this country was sufficiently complex, and even disaffiliated, that a passionate young artist like Frank could have understood it as a cue for his own reactions to the fogs and evasions of the Eisenhower years. That the title, size, number of photographs and overall design of Frank’s book echoed that of Evans’ only supports this sense that Frank’s The Americans was as much an hommage to Evans American Photographs as it was a remarkable and original work.

The pair of photographs that immediately follows this page describes the connection between the two photographers’ work in a clear, literal way. Evans’ use of the 35mm camera in the first picture is blunter and less eloquent than Frank’s—Frank appears to have tilted his camera slightly to frame the clasped hands of his subject, and to prevent the upper half of his picture from floating, as it nearly does in Evans’ photograph—but the taut, anxious stance of the two women, and the fact that they are both wrapped in fur, suggests that Frank’s picture could have been done by a photographer remembering another, similar photograph he himself had taken years before. Only Evans’ easy acceptance of background information in his picture, particularly the signs that locate a billiard parlor and cafeteria in the distance, hints at an artist more interested in description than in symbols. In Frank’s work, such information commonly can be read as an indication of the meaning of the picture, not as a fact that anchors it in a specific time and place.

The second pair of photographs reveals how Frank could take a subject of Evans’ and make it his own. Although both pictures possess a physical grace which compels us to enter and read them, Evans’ photograph—made with a view camera—rewards this reading with the kind of pleasures and satisfactions we receive from lucid expository prose. The battered room that the two barber chairs share is described not only as a dilapidated vanity, but also as a meeting place and, possibly, an improvised surgery (where a properly desperate man might go to have a tooth pulled or a bullet removed from a wound), meanings that reside in the detail of Evans’ picture as an etymology resides in a word. Frank’s photograph of a barber chair, on the other hand, owns no particular meaning at all: in its collapsed space, the chair glows with the insolent mystery of an object ruling a troubling dream (a dream inseparable from the photographer himself, whose shadow is outlined on the screen door). Through a brilliant, powerful act of compression, Frank has transformed Evans’ subject into a figure of his imagining, an emblem which mediates between his own intense feelings and the common world. That Robert Frank refused in The Americans only to imply what he felt, but, instead, in a long series of exact symbols, precisely traced what he recognized, defines a genius as conscious and extraordinary as that which informs Walker Evans’ American Photographs. That he divined in Evans’ work a vision cognate with his own furious sense of the truth, and—in a process embracing memory, intuition, guile, rapacity of sight, and love—transmuted it into the searing account of this country given by The Americans is a creative miracle.

Tod Papageorge is a photographer and Professor of Photography at Yale University. He is also the author of Walker Evans and Robert Frank: An Essay on Influence, which was published this year by the Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Conn.