Walker Evans Revisited

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by Kelly Everding

Famous for his Farm Security Administration photographs of Depression-struck Southern folk, Walker Evans is the latest artist to be "retrospected," hailed as a pioneer and visionary of his time. Every scrap Evans ever touched now assumes a halo of genius, and the thousands of photographs dispersed in the last year of his life are surfacing to the joy of photography aficionados everywhere. The March 26, 2001 New Yorker printed a throw-away image by Evans, "killed" with a dismissive hole punch, now collected and preserved by the Library of Congress and available to the general public through their "American Memory" web site. Walker Evans is hot—but for good reason, as two new books can attest. Walker Evans: The Lost Work and Unclassified: A Walker Evans Anthology couldn't be more different, but together they flesh out the long career of Walker Evans, fifty years of creative output of one kind or another. Their portrayal of this prolific and observant man dashes any easy categorization one might project on his photographic mission. His eagerness to document America and its people in all walks of life pushes beyond the boundaries of his own era, and instead serves to enlighten our understanding of Evans as the fiercely intelligent and uncompromising eye behind the lens.

Clark Worswick purchased the photographs collected in Walker Evans: The Lost Work, and his introductory essay traces the labyrinthine dealings that occurred during the last years of Evans's life. Evans sold the bulk of his negatives and prints to George Rinhart and Tom Bergen in two separate purchases. In turn, Rinhart and Bergen sold the collection to Harry Lunn, who proceeded to authenticate the collection with an estate stamp in lieu of Evans's signature, as he was too weak in the hospital to sign. Lunn appears to be much reviled in the photography world, his name eliciting epithets and derisive howls; being the owner of the bulk of Evans's output, he made it his life-long goal to make Evans work among the best-sold of all time. He succeeded, of course, however the prints he sold were much the same, collected from Evans's Depression-era work. Lunn couldn't sell the lesser-known work until he found the eager Worswick, who recognized the mastery of this "marginalia."

Fortunately, the prints exquisitely reproduced in this book resist the seedy art business dealings that surround them. Collected here is the work that follows the long arc of Evans's output: photos of friends and their homes; photos from Cuba, England, Nova Scotia, and all over the United States; architectural photos; subway photos; photos of signage; and of course photos from the South of the 1930s. Writers will enjoy seeing portraits of Tennessee Williams, Robert Lowell, Lady Caroline Blackwood, and Hart Crane. Together with the intimate interiors of his friends' houses—clothes draped here and there, the cigarette butts and empty bottles of last night's party in full view—the sense of character in mundane, inanimate objects becomes heightened to a large degree. Evans's infamous detachment from his subjects ("Detachment is my professional equipment," he maintained) allows the subjects of his pictures to create their own aura of story and soul. Unposed, the houses, people, tables and lamps "let be be finale of seem," as Wallace Stevens put it. Worswick shows off his good taste by selecting these fantastic plates, and Belinda Rathbone's delightful closing essay adds more history and perspective to the collection for those unfamiliar with Evans and his life. "Evans did not draw a strict line between the private and public subject matter for his art," says Rathbone, which further enhances the detachment he imposed on himself when photographing his subjects—everything was fair game, everything treated with a fierce equality.

Unclassified: A Walker Evans Anthology is somewhat of an antipode to the above book. While Worswick's collection respects the detachment of the artist in its staid, "art book" presentation, Unclassified, graced with a self-portrait of a young Evans's blurred visage on the cover in mid-yawp, is something altogether different. Replete with facsimiles of letters, type-written stories, newspaper photos, lists, postcards, magazine articles, and family photos, every page is infused with Evans's singular personality. Published as a companion to the Metropolitan Museum of Art's retrospective of Walker Evans's work, and terrifically edited by Jeff L. Rosenheim and Douglas Eklund, Unclassified collects, as did the obsessive Evans, the ephemera that informed Evans's life.

As a young man, Evans was a great lover of literature and wanted to become a writer. He wrote short stories and poems throughout his life, but here are collected some early stories that reveal his aesthetic leanings. In 1926 he moved to France and enrolled at the Sorbonne and at the Collège de la Guild where he studied language and civilization. There, he tried his hand at translating his favorite French writers, including Baudelaire and Blaise Cendrars. From Baudelaire, Evans learned to observe minutely the ephemera of urban life. In his translation of Baudelaire's "The Double Room" one can see how his attention to detail and his allowance for the object to live its own life began to form: "The furnishings are lengthened forms, dejected, weakened. They seem to dream; one would say they were gifted with a somnambulistic life, as is vegetable or mineral matter." Evans's love for collecting all sorts of mundane objects finds sympathy in the translation he made of Cendrars's short story "Mad": "I surrounded myself with the most uncouth things. A biscuit tin, an ostrich egg, a sewing machine, a piece of quartz, a bar of lead, a stovepipe. I spent my days handling and fingering and smelling these things." Both of these examples show his interest drawn toward the interior life, the interior monologue that informs the vision of his photography. His own writings were primarily interior monologues driven by intense observation borne of detachment. In his short story "Brooms" a list—how he loved to make lists—appears:


collar pin
bath slippers
Crime and Punishment
rubber cement

The accumulative aspect of this list tells a story in itself, as do his photos of detritus, signs, homes, people—themes he serialized throughout his life.

One of the assignments Evans had when he worked at Fortune magazine after World War II was to photograph unknowing passersby on a street corner in Detroit, Michigan. The project was called "Labor Anonymous," and those pages from Fortune are reproduced here along with hand-written lists, sleeves for the negatives, and a newspaper clipping from the help-wanted classifieds. These photographs captured the dignity, variety, and unselfconsciousness of the mid-century work force, but they also documented people caught in the middle of their quotidian day. Repetition of subject matter did not necessarily mean seeing the same thing over and over again—every object or subject carries its own integrity and uniqueness. Evans also took serial photos of subway riders, popular signage and advertisements from all over the country, and architectural studies of Victorian homes. His articles, "Beauties of the Common Tool" and "Vintage Office Furniture," also photographed and written for Fortune, are tour de forces of such documentation. Of the office furniture, Evans writes, "Contemporary designers are perhaps the most triumphant group of professionals operating in the land today. They may alter the entire face of business in a matter of years now. When this happens, a photographic record like the collection on these pages will be wanted by historians." Indeed, they are wanted by historians, not to mention artists, antique collectors, and even cartoonists (Chris Ware and Seth come to mind).

I have touched but the surface of this anthology. Also included in this remarkable book are selections from Evans's own collection of penny postcards (in all their gorgeous, saturated color) and newspaper clippings. Particularly arresting are the grotesque and humorous clippings of times past—multitudes in gas masks, captured outlaws, Ruth Snyder in the electric chair, and aboriginal tribesmen to name a few—all in their original glued positions on four-ring binder paper (the holes reinforced by those self-adhesive rings!). Letters to and from Evans's good friend Hanns Skolle, as well as the lists entitled "Contempt for:" he produced with writer James Agee, capture the spontaneity and wit of these young artists; the essays on younger photographers he championed, including Diane Arbus and Lee Friedlander, and the photographs by Evans and others interspersed throughout the pages, also help to create a vivid portrait of this hard-working visionary. Evans writes that "art ought not to be propaganda, which is useless; it ought to have purpose and a function." Although he was referring to the exquisite eye of Arbus, he could be speaking of his own work. Unflinching and unclassifiable, Walker Evans created a powerful oeuvre that speaks for itself and serves the worthiest of functions: it reminds us of who we were and are amid the accumulating flotsam and jetsam of this world we made. We are responsible for it, and we deserve the glory and shame such responsibility entails.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001