The American landscape took on a different character through the eyes of Walker Evans. Conchita Fernandes peeks into his life and finds out how.
When you look at photography, past and present, there will always be a group of photographers working against the grain, tirelessly trying to break the thick shell of conventionality. John Szarkowski speaks of one such non-conformist, Walker Evans, calling his work the ‘antithesis of art’. This was evident in Evans’ choice of subjects which included the vernacular signboards, architecture, interiors of buildings and the people of his America.
This straightforward depiction was reminiscent of the renowned Eugène Atget, and the visuals he created of the buildings and alleyways in Paris. In fact, it was Atget’s strength in finding beauty amongst the commonality that struck a chord with Evans.
Animating the Inanimate
However, this upfront style was very unlike the pictures that photographers were shooting back then (late 1930s and 40s). While Henri Cartier-Bresson was out and about looking to capture the decisive moment, Evans preferred to observe from afar. By nature he was a shy man, and this trait comes out in his Subway Portraits (1938– 1941). It was deliberately shot during the colder months in New York, as it gave him a chance to conceal the camera in his coat.
Even in this detachment, Evans brought a certain element of wonder to his subjects. Literary critic Robert Pen Warren had this to say about the first time he saw the photographer’s work, “Staring at the pictures, I knew that my familiar world was a world that I had never known. The veil of familiarity prevented me from seeing it.
“Privilege is an immoral and unjust thing to have. But you’ve got it, you didn’t choose to get it and you might as well use it.”
Then, thirty years ago, Walker tore aside that veil; he woke me from the torpor of the unaccustomed.”
One had to possess the eye to see through and beyond the obvious plainness of his pictures. The closer you looked, the more you unraveled. It was as if his “photographs quietly animated the inanimate,” said Belinda Rathbone in Walker Evans: A Biography. “That his photographs saw through windows and porches and around corners gave them a new dimension and power and even an aura of revelation,” she wrote.
Documenting the Depression
As Walker steadily continued to build his photographic repertoire in the late 1920s, America came face-to-face with the Great Depression. At the time, Fortune was running a series of human-interest stories on the effects of the catastrophe. One such story was to be about white tenant farmers and James Agee, a journalist, was handed the job. Agee agreed to do it under one condition, that Evans accompanies him on the project. Walker was excited by the prospect of being a part of a story that would give him a far greater access to people that he ordinarily wouldn’t have dared to approach.
“This attraction of mine to the camera and the graphic product was a blind but passionate response to something I could not really analyse or describe. I knew I had to do it.”
The final outcome was Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (Fortune didn’t end up publishing the story), which finally materialised in 1941. It featured a detailed and exhaustive account of the day-today life of three cotton tenant farmer families, along with Evans’ photographs. However, the book did not fare too well and received mixed reviews. While Agee was criticised for his overambitious approach to the story, Evans’ images received moderate reviews. It was felt that his images conveyed what Agee said in 150,000 odd words. The book only sold a mere 600 copies.
The Rise of the Phoenix
However, it was only in the late 1950s that people began to rediscover the book, and it was republished in 1960. This time around, people were able to identify the respect that Evans showed his subjects, something that was new for a time when all photographers were dramatising the catastrophe.
Where Margaret Bourke-White barged into her subjects, Evans instinctively took a step back. He preferred to observe or stare as he called it. “Stare, it is the only way to educate your eye, and more. Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long,” he said.
Redemption, But at a Cost
Prior to the second release of the book, it was American Photographs that really brought him to the forefront, when it was showcased at the Museum of Modern Art in 1938. He was thrilled about finally being recognised. But even in this exaltation, there was a sharp descent. “He felt tight, suppressed, embarrassed. The show was full of his private feelings, now open to the public,” stated his biography.
Although the photographs were praised for painting an honest portrait of America, there were those who felt that the country could do without such pessimism, especially since it was recovering from the repercussions of the depression. Ansel Adams was completely flabbergasted by the work. In contrast to his photographs of the rich American landscapes, Evans’ images were a painful blow. In a letter to Edward Weston he said, “Walker Evans’ book gave me a hernia. I am so goddam mad over what people from the left tier think America is.” However, Weston felt differently, and appreciated Evans instead.
Two years after the release of American Photographs, he journeyed through the same terrain that Evans had along the Mississippi, documenting the ruined plantations.
A Downward Spiral
As clear-cut, simple and honest as his photographs were, Walker Evans was immensely complex. He was fixated on having things done his way and expected people to conform. He also felt that the world owed him for all the times that his work went unappreciated. Even Fortune, where he worked for 20 years, couldn’t keep up with his obscurity. They simply did not know what to do with him.
“I do like to suggest people sometimes by their absence. I like to make you feel that an interior is almost inhabited by somebody.”
The Eventual Demise
Towards the end, his recklessness finally got the better of him, when he agreed to sell his life’s work for USD 1,50,000, a figure his friends felt could have been better worked out. With the assumption that the money would fix whatever was left of his fragmented being, his error soon struck him hard in the face, when he saw his prints being carted off. This made him very bitter.
40 years after his death, I cannot say for sure if we have completely decoded Evans. The little that we know and from what his images tell, there are more doors to be unlocked. It seems that even in death, he continues to remain elusive and adamant about revealing himself.
This article originally appeared in the December 2015 issue of Better Photography.