TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT April 1989

SIGNS OF LIGHT: WALKER EVANS' AMERICAN PHOTOGRAPHS

TOWARD THE END OF OUR CENTURY Walker Evans’ Images, Though Long Canonized, Jumpstart Our Moral Imagination. In Many Of Its Liabilities his America has not changed fundamentally, for all that the look of it has altered since the publication of his American Photographs by the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1938, slightly over 50 years ago.1 Nothing dates a photograph more specifically, aside from the lettering that it may frame, than the cars that it depicts. Evans’ are inevitably of their bygone period. But we are still a chauvinist society, still a violent and a wasteful one, and still hopelessly racist. On the other hand, we have lost any resistant temper, any unified drive that would combat these social pathologies, so that our emotional horizon has been transformed. Today’s affluence would be unknown in Evans’ images, but so, too, would be our listless sense of the national future and our ethical fatigue.

American Photographs, now reissued with an accompanying exhibition at the Modern, calmly examines the wide spectrum of our possibilities, our past, and our defeats. Even though he recognizes inequities for what they are, in a hard and dry way, Evans does not complain of them, and still less does he wallow in them. His detached attitude impresses us as fearsomely principled. We are a more bellicose place than he knew then, but morally speaking a less potent one. “Here,” wrote Lincoln Kirstein in his afterword to the 1938 book, “are the records of an age before an imminent collapse.” The writer was conceivably anticipating a proverbial fall, brought on by the debacle of the ’30s, and the terror of imminent war. Fifty years into that “fall” have made a difference. Objective conditions are presently not so bad that a failure of will can’t make them worse, and to the extent that we surmise that failure in ourselves, Evans’ panorama, with its refusal to be alienated by what Kirstein called “an open insanity and pitiful grandeur,” strikes us as audacious . . . even farfetched. Had he been outraged, we could have understood him better and perhaps dismissed him a little. But he was circumspect.

With their varied inventories of homely facts, Evans’ photographs are pleasurable to read, but the tactful stringency of his approach makes him difficult to discuss. Ever ready to illuminate the concreteness of deprivation, as if a thing of beauty, he puzzles us about his “engagement.” His peculiar mixture of pessimism, aroused by some of the things he saw, and optimism, openly expressed for the prospects of photography (such that he thought they might even drive him mad2), has provoked ideologists from the right and from the left. They have treated him either as a figure wrongly politicized by liberals or one to be condemned as a self-involved mandarin. So, for example, Hilton Kramer comments:

The cultural ethos of [the 1930s], with its emphasis on social consciousness and political commitment, did much to determine the way Evans’ work would be perceived for several decades, and . . . still determines the way many of his admirers look upon his achievement . . . that the human chronicle so dear to political sentimentalists of rural poverty and urban low-life plays a relatively minor role in this photographer’s total oeuvre.3

It’s odd to hear that the decisive period in Evans’ career, 1935–38, during which he established his greatest impact upon his colleagues of the Farm Security Administration (Historical Section), played only a “minor role.” It’s even stranger to read that a social concern for oppressed subjects—during the Depression!—was not a relevant basis for serious art, nor even apparently a worthy human instinct: to imagine that Evans was involved on any such level is to be “blinded,” “mistaken,” and sentimental. On the other hand, a neo-Marxist theoretician, John Tagg, has recently castigated all the FSA photographers as lackeys of a Rooseveltian paternalism, except Evans, who is judged an especially odious character because he diverged from them into an elitist esthetic favored by Alfred Stieglitz and the American ruling class.4 Aside from being ignorant of the fact that Evans had no use for Stieglitz, this statement amounts to censuring an artist because he had esthetic tendencies. Still, one would like to know how these estimates, so utterly opposed to each other, could have been elicited by the historical evidence.

In many respects, Evans had a conservative outlook. The photographers with whom he felt most in step, Mathew Brady and Eugene Atget, were either historically remote or looked to the past, this at the time when Life and the big press agencies were racing breathlessly upon the scene. Apart from them, his chief artistic allegiance, as is well known, was claimed by writers, Flaubert and Baudelaire, once again 19th-century creators. It’s a sign of an intricate sensibility that the photographer wanted to keep the dispassionate method of the one and the corrosive spirit of the other equally in mind. Certainly he expressed just as much scorn for bourgeois norms as they did (though he had far greater respect for a democratic society’s vernacular culture). Evans is often thought of as a classicist, but it’s truer to say that he was antiromantic, an attitude that emerges in his emphasis on the disappearance of the author into the work, and the thought that the picture should selflessly describe states of affairs. When this inclination is contrasted with those of his fellow workers who managed to affirm themselves, or to heroicize their subjects, in the service of a good cause, Evans turns out to be quite aristocratic. Yet this son of a well-off Chicago North Shore family withdrew into a craft that enjoyed little artistic standing and less social prestige. He behaved thereafter as an impecunious New York bohemian, who lived on the air and dressed as a dandy. When on assignment to illustrate Carleton Beals’ radical book The Crime of Cuba, 1933 (an exposé of U.S.-business collusion with the Machado dictatorship), he went off on his own to photograph Havana stevedores and neglected to read Beals’ text.

Some of these blackened dockworkers appear in American Photographs, inserted easily with native material and hard-times Anglo faces. Before any sequential or narrative idea emerges in the book, disjunctions such as this make the pictures appear to be shown off as if by a collector who implies that the subjects are replete with meaning by virtue of their bare presence. The work comes upon us as a motley assortment of images with minimal titles banished to the ends of its two sections. In the far more concentrated group of photographs included in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the famous study of Alabama tenant farmers that Evans coauthored with James Agee, the ostentatiously untitled pictures are fed in before the text even commences. “Parallel play” might be better than “mutual support” as a way of describing this relationship of images and words—though their themes are deeply entwined. One can’t help noticing, and is intended to notice, Evans’ balkiness in the matter of being encompassed by discourse. The downward behavioral mobility, the accent on work as an accumulation of images, the insistence on the sufficiency of photo-graphic content as visual statement on its own terms: these mark Evans as a highly self-conscious artist.

In line with that perspective, he never claimed that he made documents, but that he worked in a “documentary style.” “An example of a literal document,” he remarked in a 1971 interview, would be a police photograph of a murder scene. . . . a document has use, whereas art is really useless. . . . I’m sometimes called a “documentary photographer,” but . . . a man operating under that definition could take a certain sly pleasure in the disguise. Very often I’m doing one thing when I’m thought to be doing another.5

Since Evans was praised everywhere for his straightforwardness, it is reassuring to hear him confess to being devious. But he certainly did not take pleasure in the supposed inutility of his images in order to titillate himself. It would likely have been with the thought of Evans’ work that Agee wrote, “The artist’s task is not to alter the world as the eye sees it into a world of aesthetic reality, but to perceive the aesthetic reality within the actual world, and to make an undisturbed and faithful record of the instant.”6 A police photographer obviously has no regard for the esthetic; his or her unaltered view is meant to confirm a temporary and random position of things, to record only their latest moment together. In contrast, Evans’ undisturbed view affirms their representative, that is, their symbolic, alignment with each other. In American Photographs, material conditions are understood as predetermined and deep rooted. He has a lively sense of the fatality of ordinary arrangements, which he observes in fresh morning light or bright sun.

The bureaucratic photograph must be dissociated and affectless in order to do its job. Its vantage is neutralized, subordinated to the purpose of relaying information, such that it can be said to portray anyone’s or no one’s encounter with the subject. Evans, though, stoutly testifies to “being there.” His esthetic issues from a sense of place, and that sense is fulfilled only to the degree that the camera gaze can accommodate the viewer to the particularities of what is seen. The articles depicted within the frame are not treated as suggestive chaff but are understood as things that have intelligibly taken into themselves, have been imprinted with, their users’ lives. People and their artifacts are mutually possessed by each other. Evans’ “useless” imagery, in fact, is a study of user and used things, and therefore of the plain work that has affected each. That the work itself has a cultural value, as it does in African Negro Art (the pictures commissioned from him for a show of that title at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1934), there can be no doubt. Evans has a dualistic concept of function. The purpose of labor is to fabricate, to which he bears witness with fellow feeling. But labor also reveals an interrelatedness between people and their environment over time—and to note the depletions that have worn them both down is a political act.

In the homes of miners in West Virginia or of tenant farmers in Alabama, Evans’ arrays of domestic objects open us to questions far beyond the reach of any merely beautiful still life. Without being reordered by the photographer, things take their place in a narrative—or is it that the regard for them is storied? The ’30s were a decade when the indigenous textures and folkways of small-town and rural America were being studied in WPA handbooks and evoked in fiction. (One Georgia filling-station attendant had his background data typed out for the benefit of passing anthropologists.) Evans, who once described himself as a failed writer, approached American gas pumps, movie posters, civic statues, rocking chairs, wood-burning stoves, barbershops, and the faces that went with them all as typical features in a vast sign landscape. Contrary to the eeriness that the Surrealists had seen in Atget, Evans took from him a systematic, if never categorical, respect for the primacy of signs and their varied sets as carriers of photographic meaning. Literal signs denote locales and services, allude to popular fantasies, and announce goods at specific prices. Less discursively, worn-away topsoil is a sign of erosion, and the freshly mounded grave of a child is a sign of a premature death. Whenever possible, such indications are featured so as to work as internal titles.

As it comes to the fore, this semiotic of the American scene crowds out the reportorial or anecdotal latencies of the documentary style. Compared to the images of other FSA photographers such as Russell Lee, Arthur Rothstein, and Ben Shahn, which he influenced, Evans’ has more nouns. Occasionally their images scrutinize certain telling details—gnarled, arthritic hands, thin, sagging, mattresses and bedsprings; but Evans visibly concentrates on things like these. He never really shows anyone at work, but only the physical toll of work on flesh and material. He does not reveal people at prayer, but he will illuminate their faith by displaying the kind of wooden churches they built in forest clearings. By observing that newness and energy have been taken out of things which nevertheless are still maintained, American Photographs presents itself as a gallery of moral effects. When subjects posed for Evans, the interest is in the effect of the permission he gave them to construct their own, ordinary performance. What had preceded him or was offstage but in every sense had contributed to the present sighting is included by implication in the experience of the current moment. Absence and presence are continually juxtaposed with each other. Evans’ record of sign language fuses with his historical consciousness, freighting his pictures with their characteristic density.

Speaking of the Gudgers and the Ricketts, the farmer families in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, William Stott remarks, “These are not simple people if we mean by ‘simple’ having just one significance and that readily apparent. . . . Yet in another sense, these people are simple. . . . What one sees, looking at them, . . . is an incapacity to dissemble.”7 In a greater measure, the population of the rural America Evans depicted had no capacity to dissemble. The subjects inhabiting this ruined pastoral were unaware of the condescension of urban purposes or big media, and therefore were undefended against them. A consciousness of this was loudly publicized by Agee and certainly shared by Evans, together operating in Alabama on assignment for the Luce press (Fortune). The purposes of their in-depth study demanded that they gain access and trust in a damaged area; at the same time, the openness or transparency of conduct that they found everywhere furthered their penetration. In fact, it was positively magnetic. Agee wrote about such vulnerability with a kind of ornate, late-romantic, transfiguring guilt, as if he might be redeemed by confessing his privilege in the face of poverty. But Evans, here and throughout his career, seized upon the idea that the most ”strict" observation provided the most apt commentary. And he had a natural advantage over the writer because he could claim, with justice, that surfaces spoke for themselves . . . that is, they spoke, without dissembling, of their history.

It is time to say that this forthright artist was also very elliptical. In his remaking of the documentary style, cause was continually displaced by effect. This put him at odds with Roy Stryker, his section chief at the FSA, whose socioanthropological approach was particularly illustrated by the “shooting scripts” he sent to photographers in the field: he wanted them to show how tasks were performed, large and small, and social affairs conducted. This practical-minded boss thought that no improvement could be realized in the lot of the dispossessed except by tooting the horn of American know-how . . . and the affirmation of our traditional values. There may have been much to recommend that wholesome attitude, overall, but not in Evans’ book. A great deal has been made of the conflict between the two men as a bureaucrat’s inevitable misunderstanding of an artist. But a larger difference separated them. For Stryker, society was a network bent on remaking itself; though it had been seriously injured, pictures could show the process of repair at local levels. But Evans’ outlook was retrospective, as befitted one who had a regard for lingering effects rather than for new inputs. The subject of his work was primarily what had happened to America, or what America had been, as opposed to what it might become. He took it for granted that everything observed through his large 8-by-10-inch view camera was in the process of survival.

This distinguished him from such powerful colleagues as Dorothea Lange and Margaret Bourke-White, who had emphasized the bitterness of the present, a condition in which they were fully immersed but that they sought to repudiate and overcome. Pictorially speaking, their work was embroiled in a psychology of struggle, sculpted and personalized in the bodies of resistant victims. The function of the picture was to dramatize either the need for new legislation (as in Paul Taylor’s text for Lange’s An American Exodus) or the pain of beaten-down hopes within anonymous lives (as in Erskine Caldwell’s captions with Bourke-White for You Have Seen Their Faces). Viewers of these illustrated books knew at least preliminarily how they stood: as the ones who were exhorted. In contrast, the Kirstein essay in American Photographs, published by a museum, was about the pictures, not the conditions they recorded. The book failed to exhort anyone, and could have left its viewers somewhat at a loss.

Certainly all these photographers, of such high caliber, who covered analogous turfs and found similar, even interchangeable outlets, worked with immediacy and with connection to their reality. But Evans’ comparatively muted, quietist, and deliberate view of it seems to address itself to the margins or the shards of the national dilemma. For all that they make an affecting appearance, individuals do not play a central role in his vision. He often appears to care more about weathered articles or effects than about the personal fortunes of their owners. Just the same, the rightness of this tone gradually sinks in on the viewer, who grasps that Evans aims to describe a broader spectacle, the diffusions of a culture in its material expression. As for the culture itself, he perceives it as something that endures only with hardship and that is comprised mostly of relics, Victorian and clapboard. One has to say that Evans’ notion of his present is of an aftermath, that the sheer scantiness of people’s belongings—poverty here is distinguished by neatness rather than clutter—is all that remains of an experience itself not visually expounded.8 In some respects, Evans’ act of memory reflects the bleakest temper in the FSA archive, and throughout ’30s American photography as a whole, because he was heretically resigned to what he shows: a world irremediable in its appearance.

Yet American Photographs refuses to declare any one view of that world. When Evans spoke about the disguise he wore in the Depression, it was with the pride of an artist who had flimflammed government and corporate patronage to accomplish his own—deeper and more ambiguous—ends. Consistently in the book, brief runs of one kind of subject are interrupted by others, so that the viewer is kept off balance. Sour urban faces are replaced by eye-rolling movie posters; cars on Main Street give way to histrionic war statues, which are in turn succeeded by a Havana policeman, American Legion types, a coal-begrimed longshoreman, and a racist minstrel-show bill. In this fashion, disparate vignettes and mean flashes are likened to each other for reasons of poetic comparison rather than documentary coverage. Throughout, dirgelike elements are interspersed: abandoned antebellum plantation houses, an auto junkyard, the shacks and hovels of blacks, and the famous view of the graveyard in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. (The whole second part of the book is like an elegy on the naive architecture it shows.) Aside from this recurrent motif, any single theme contends with others in a seemingly offhanded design. Suddenly we realize that we have to work to get at the thought that underlies this proposal about America.

Evans allows emotional shades to animate and flicker through his sequences, but he never settles into any of them, never identifies any of them as his own attitudes. But in this rhetorical inconclusiveness is located his politics of seeing. What there was to indict in the social system and what there was to admire in those meshed within it are found as resonances of often static visual phenomena. Invited to supply an ideological text to these provocative images, we discover it only in the light that etches in scene after scene. Our basis of looking at American Photographs continually shifts, in fact, not only because its short takes are disruptive of each other, but because the pragmatism and scruple of Evans’ historical method were energized by a search for revelation. The phenomena he photographed are crystallized in his images, as he hoped, in some transcendent moment of encounter. Instead of imposing his “superior” way of seeing upon the humbleness of the thing seen, he wished to fuse them at equal strength. When the moment came, it was as the reward of his patience and to be served by his craft. “Only I,” he said, “can do it at this moment, only this moment and only me. That’s a hell of a thing to believe, but I believe it or I couldn’t act.”9 How attuned is Evans here to Emerson’s remark, ”The eye was placed where one ray should fall, that it might testify of that particular ray .”10 Howsoever the light gifted the scene, Evans’ self-effacing but also specially elected role was to offer unique witness to it. And this may account for the odd—and compelling—sense of gratitude that informs even his pictures of extreme want and wretchedness, and of the extraordinary faces that bear up under them. It comes home to us that this is a dissonant experience just before we realize that in such dissonance the man consummates his art.

The ethical stance of American Photographs was hardly lost on contemporaries Or successors, but its poise—certainly its range—was elusive to sustain. Shahn and Helen Levitt further developed the urban side of his vision, while Wright Morris lyricized the rural one. By the time of the Swiss Robert Frank, who gladly confessed his debt to Evans, the militarist economy that had finally eliminated the Depression had puffed us up mighty vulgar. In loathing ’50s culture as passionately as he did, Frank lost sight of, or didn’t care about, Evans’ historical mission. The Americans is definitely Evansesque, but Evans’ exemplary status is undone in Frank’s work. For one thing, the whole structure of the later book is metaphoric rather than semiotic. “In Frank’s transforming vision of America,” says Tod Papageorge, "a car is a casket, a trolley a prison . . . a flag a shroud.”11 The outer environment exists for this photographer only to confirm the dejectedness and estrangement he himself feels, and the gauche, anomic, or desolated scenes he discovers derive their power from being already, as it were, within him. Even when signs appear, to denote other purposes (as they would in Evans), they exist here only to incriminate the makeup of the culture and people’s dismal acceptance of it. Doubtless the U.S. was a most blameworthy place, but Frank, instead of giving an account, provides only notes, glimpses, and impressions of it.

While this fragmentary view was a reflex of the ’50s Expressionist style to which Frank was highly sensitive, it more importantly announced his failure of connection with this adopted world. He intervened in it as if to say that he could never be of it, nor reconciled to it. In that one, almost unending plaint of homelessness, the younger figure decisively reverses the mentor who had actually sponsored and encouraged him. For a chief thing gleaned from American Photographs, their very stamina as imagery, is that their author worked as someone centered by a society that he could call, for better and, perhaps more often, for worse, his homeland. Because he had stakes in that place, which gave him spine and push, Walker Evans, if he chose, could be more critical of it—and more deeply grained in his criticism—than the unforgiving alien who was Robert Frank. The latter strikes the inflammatory note of Baudelaire, but lacks the chilly eye of Flaubert. Such critical potential is more conspicuous for its absence in Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander, native Americans who hardly deny the influence of Evans, but who denature and attenuate it. Frank vilified the American surround, memorably. By contrast, Friedlander, in the ’60s and ’70s, knew only how to itemize sterile phenomena. Though he was surely caught up with its vernacular and indigenous furnishings, he had utterly no idea of American society, and became a specialist in casual unrelatedness and visual miscellany. The mordant weight of its photographic heritage goes out of this work and is replaced by a cheerfully numbed and dissociated regard for . . . come what may.

Indeed, most of the photographers who have since traveled about the land with some kind of residue of Evans behind their work—William Eggleston, Lewis Baltz, Stephen Shore—have been almost programmatically unwilling to make any sense of what they look at, and so virtually approach it as strangers, alert but unknowing. Prolix with detail, their pictures are empty of purpose. They present an antiseptic, unintelligible, leveled-out, vacant, embryonic, and finally picked-over land or townscape, all at once, with a blandness of description that is really dispiriting. It could be argued that latter-day America physically resembles the picture of it given in their photographs. Even worse than the visual accuracy of their observation, however, is the neutered quality of their mood . . . which might reflect, all too convincingly, the unresilient culture in which we now find ourselves.

Into this atmosphere, American Photographs is put forth once again, and it has a melancholy sparkle. Its tally of necessary losses, so near and yet so far, is balanced by its commitment to what endures, accompanied by the teaching that the past is inherently valuable, for it tells us whence we came. The pictures are information rich, but comprehension of the messages secreted within them depends altogether on an understanding of how Evans’ style discloses them. His framing instinct is the first clue to his content, and he made sure that content was planted where he looked. Memory comes back to us in such a gaze, which reaches beyond the capacity of neo-Marxist or neoconservative viewpoints to assess the substance of Evans’ imagery. For these are among the dogmas of an age that needs to be awakened to the worth of a liberal consciousness.

Max Kozloff is a photographer and writer who lives in New York. He most recently contributed a catalogue essay to The Vanishing Presence, published by the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.

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NOTES

1. American Photographs was accompanied at the museum by a show of the same title. This was not the first time Evans had been associated with the Modern, nor would it be the last: in 1933, the museum had mounted his “Photographs of 19th-Century Houses,” and in 1934 he was commissioned to photograph the objects in the “African Negro Art” exhibition. MoMA also excerpted pictures from American Photographs for a show in 1962, followed by “Walker Evans’ Subway” in 1966, and a retrospective in 1971. Now, to celebrate the original publication, the museum has reissued as attentive and close a copy of the 1938 book as possible, with an array of mostly vintage prints on exhibit. Though Evans’ repute has broadened past the reach of any one sponsor, such a history is worth citing because it demonstrates the museum’s strong attachment to him. From Lincoln Kirstein, Evans’ first patron, through John Szarkowski to Peter Galassi, the current curator, this attachment, it seems fair to say, affirms the Modern’s understanding of Evans’ central place in the continuum of 20th-century photography.
2. See John Szarkowski, “Introduction,” in Walker Evans, exhibition catalogue, New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1971, p. 13.
3. Hilton Kramer, quoted in Walker Evans First and Last, New York: Harper & Row, 1978, front flap.
4. John Tagg, The Burden of Representation: Essays on Photographies and Histories, Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988, pp.12–13.
5. Quoted in Leslie Katz, “An Interview with Walker Evans,” in Photography in Print, ed. Vicki Goldberg, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981, pp. 364–65.
6. James Agee, Photographs by Helen Levitt: A Way of Seeing, New York: Horizon Press, 1981, p. vi.
7. William Stott, Documentary Expression and Thirties America, New York: Oxford University Press, 1973, p. 274.
8. Nor could it have been. Here, for instance, is one historian’s summary: “These were the tragic years of American agriculture. The long slow slide downhill of the ’20s had ended devastatingly in the Depression, like a disease suddenly entering its terminal phase. The high tariffs of the twenties and the effectiveness of foreign competition had cut the farmers off from their traditional foreign markets. . . . The Depression destroyed the domestic market. Purchasing power in the cities collapsed, and the effects worked back through the chain of textile factories, meat-processors and vegetable-canners to the primary producers . . . dozens of small country banks broke, and with them fell both their debtors and their creditors. The remaining banks . . . foreclosed their mortgages on farms as soon as payments ceased . . . nowhere was the Depression more of a calamity than in rural America.” Hugh Brogan, The Pelican History of the United States of America, New York: Penguin, 1985, pp. 551–52.
9. Quoted in Katz, p. 365.
10. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” in The Portable Emerson, New York: Penguin, 1985, p. 139.
11. Tod Papageorge, Walker Evans and Robert Frank: An Essay on Influence, exhibition catalogue, New Haven: Yale University Art Gallery, 1981, p. 8.