The Man Who Was Really a Camera: America’s Great Walker Evans (Part One)
by Lorette C. Luzajic
“I stare and stare at people, shamelessly,” the great American photographer Walker Evans confessed in his book, Many Are Called.
Walker Evans (1937)
It wasn’t just people that he scrutinized. He saw everything, where others saw nothing. Teaching students photography at Yale, he would ask his students what they could see. If they said nothing, or said there was nothing there with which to make a photograph, he would tell them to look more closely. “Oh, yes, you can. Try to find a way.”
“Walker made you feel like you were going through life blind,” said Lady Caroline Blackwood of the photographer. “His brilliant eye would notice the tiniest detail.”
Blackwood is quoted in Belinda Rathbone’s Walker Evans: a Biography, and this eloquent compliment speaks volumes. Blackwood was not exactly a shy, inexperienced wallflower who went through life with her eyes half shut. She was a muse to Freud’s artist grandchild and to booze-soaked poet Robert Lowell; she was heiress to the Guinness estate, and fittingly, a lush herself; and she was a writer whose graphic depictions of sadistic pedophilia would make Nabokov blush. Blackwood was not blind- she had seen a thing or two.
Walker Evans created many thousands of images, but he is best known for his work with the Farm Security Administration. The FSA’s goal was “rural rehabilitation,” with hopes of combating Depression-era poverty among American farmers. The socialist effort was a mixed bag of temporary Band-Aid-ism and abject failure, but the project had an unexpected benefit- it became one of the most thorough historical documentation legacies of all time.
The FSA hired photographers to record American life during the Depression, accumulating over seventy-five thousand images. The pictures in our minds from this epoch are invariably from this colossal undertaking. The project forms the backbone of our visual narrative of the American past, an inheritance we are fortunate to have.
Walker was, alongside the great Dorothea Lange, the best of the FSA documenters. But he was not the most reliable hire. Ian Jeffrey’s Photography: A Concise History reports that he “failed to turn in enough pictures, and failed even to report his whereabouts.” Walker worked for the prestigious Fortune Magazine for two decades, but the gig required the magazine’s acquiescence and patience, as Walker more or less insisted on his way or the highway. And when commissioned to take photos for a book about Cuba, he made “some conditions.” They were somewhat peculiar ones for an assignment. “I wanted to be left alone. I wanted nothing to do with the book…I’d like to just go down there and make some pictures but don’t tell me what to do…I never read the book.”
Walker was also rather flexible in interpreting deadlines. Worse, some photographers, editors, and critics say he lacked technical skills because he placed little store in them. But the reputation of his disdain for the darkroom is unfounded- he even preferred to hang out and supervise assistants in progress. He was a perfectionist very attached to, and very possessive of the results bearing his name. And he did own a variety of equipment, despite remarks made to the contrary. Experts have even determined that photographic errors attributed to his work were mainly due to storage and conservation issues outside his control.
However, it is true that he preferred that the real work happen while actually taking the pictures, not in tricks done after the fact. Photography at the onset of Walker’s career was dependent on cumbersome equipment, primitive flash powder and bulbs, and all manner of weighty contraptions, and Walker found these to be obtrusive to the objective, natural, neutral things he wanted to capture. “I don’t believe in manipulation… of any photographs or negatives. To me it should be strictly straight photography and look like it.”
Because of this burdensome rigmarole, and expectations of mechanical proficiency in the darkroom, photography itself had, as the artist says, a “despised” reputation. It was seen as strictly commercial, as a science at best, or as a trade or craft. But Walker had a different idea. “I am an artist,” he would reportedly grumble. A student once asked what kind of camera he worked with. Walker resented the question; it was like asking an author what kind of typewriter he used.
Walker liked to leave the responsibility of his photography to the mind and the eye. He saw everything and missed nothing, as Caroline expressed. His gift was showing it to us. Another figure of New York society, Susanna Coggeshall, said in Rathbone’s biography, “He took in everything…he was conscious of everything in the room…He practically was a camera.”
Walker himself famously stated, “Stare. It is the way to educate your eye, and more…Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long.”
Like the cliché goes, a picture is worth a thousand words, and the FSA photographs show us a richly textured humanity, even if they were rote assignment pieces as far as Walker was concerned. The bleak and beautiful depictions transport us into a bygone era, into the Dust Bowl, into harsh expanses of cotton fields and towns populated by people straight out of a Cormac McCarthy novel. The work of John Steinbeck and William Faulkner also comes alive; Evan’s scenery is what these authors conjured in their stories.
Nor are these mere anthropological records, or snapshots for scientific data, even though this was, in a sense, their purpose. We see what Walker saw, more than just the crude reality of poverty and toil, but the nobility of simplicity, of people working to hold their families together, of people socializing on street corners of tiny towns. We are compelled by Walker’s instinctive skills using shapes, light, and composition in photo after photo. We see shapes and patterns in the repetitive lineups of steel mill worker company houses, in the cluttered clump of cars at an auto dump; we see the stark angles of a church facade against an empty sky; the dusty trails, the peeling billboards, the beauty inherent in curious jumbles of objects. Though Walker was born to affluent people, and socialized in circles of considerable or at least moderate means, he was not impressed by vulgar display of privilege. But he says he didn’t take on his work documenting the poor or the everyday to make any particular comments. “I didn’t like the label that I unconsciously earned of being a social protest artist,” he told Yale Alumni Magazine. “I never took it upon myself to change the world.” Here, as in all of his work, the artist was just looking.
Looking at an image that had inspired Walker, a photo by Paul Strand, insightful blogger Shelley Powers saw how Walker differed from other photographers trying to create a statement. “In this picture, Evans saw an uncompromising realism unfettered by any emotional hooks. There was no attempt to make the woman into something either to be admired or pitied; nor was there an attempt to make a ‘pretty’ picture, or a noble one. Combined, this realism and lack of emotionality formed the basis for Evans’ own style of photography: unsentimental, realistic, and unstaged.”
This is exactly what made his work such a major contribution to the historical significance of the FSA project, and the reason these images are the ones we associate with Walker Evans. This is the body of work that is always mentioned in introductory or cursory discussions, and most scholarly or in-depth examinations also focus on this crucial legacy.
This is partly due to the acclaim a closely related project received, in which the photographer accompanied writer James Agee to spend several months in “field work” visiting the fields of Alabama sharecroppers like Floyd and Allie Mae Burroughs.
The work was assigned by Fortune Magazine, which borrowed Evans from the FSA. When Agee refused to rewrite a manuscript filled with what Fortune later described as “baffling digressions” (David Whitford, September 2005), the magazine canned the story. It was then published by Houghton Mifflin as a book and declared by critic Lionel Trilling “the most realistic and important moral effort of our generation.” It was hailed as an undisputed masterpiece.
This was despite the fact that only six hundred copies sold at the time and the book went out of print. It wasn’t until the 1960s, after another of Agee’s works posthumously won the Pulitzer Prize, that the book was reissued and became widely popular.
Not everyone was impressed, however. Welder Charles Burroughs was in his seventies when he came forward to express disapproval about Walker and James snooping and spying and parading the family’s private poverty to the world. Walker had been dead for quarter of a century when the subject of some of his photos, who was a bright-eyed four-year-old at the time he had been photographed, complained.
“We never even got one of the damn books,” Charles told David Whitford in a Tuscaloosa Waffle House. Allie Mae’s and Floyd’s youngest child, Dottie, also told The Atlantic Magazine that Walker and James had loafed around taking notes while the family slaved away in the fields. Since her folks thought the pair was from the government, they assumed their stay would result in some help for the family. Instead, the pair inappropriately took notes about her parents having sex, and mentioned the filthiness of a curtain. “Why don’t you wash it rather than sitting on your ass and writing about it?” Dottie wondered in retrospect.
But the picture of their mother, Allie Mae Burroughs, remains one of the single most iconic images of the Depression, and of Walker’s whole career.
All this notwithstanding, this body of work was more or less inadvertent. It is small in scope compared to the entirety of Walker’s photographic output and creative interests. He took pictures of cities; sidewalks, stores, tenement buildings, signs, ads, streets, structures, feats of engineering, architecture, statues, murals, posters, automobiles, windows, alleys, churches, statues, and trucks. He took endless pictures of building facades. Of banks. He took pictures of people- self-portraits, Cubans, women, farmers, shoppers and shopkeepers, sailors, Tahitians, construction workers, children, derelicts, communists, African-Americans, sharecroppers, friends, and his muse, the tumultuous and eccentric Lady Blackwood. He took photos of interiors and the stuff that filled them; parlours, homes, stores, churches. He took pictures of carnival rides, of objects, of tools, of cemeteries, of trains, of mills, of industrial plants, of fire hydrants, of garbage cans, of sinks, of trash, of advertising, of stations, of barns, of loading docks. He took photographs of photographs, telling a story within a story, bearing witness to his witness of the witness on someone’s wall.
He was a pioneer, too, of the idea of the hidden camera, and did a major project on the New York subway. “The setting is a sociological gold mine awaiting a major artist,” Walker says in his estate’s collection, Walker Evans at Work. “…the dream ‘location’ for any portrait photographer weary of he studio and of the horrors of vanity. Down in this swaying sweatbox he finds a parade of unselfconscious captive sitters, the selection of which is automatically destined by raw chance.”
For this project, Walker wanted to get true candids and capture humanity un-posed, unaware of observation. It was 1938, before security and “reality TV” surveillance became ubiquitous. It was also illegal to take photos on the subway. Hence, there were some practical challenges to surmount- the shooting itself was a random stabbing, since Walker had concealed his camera in his coat and could not see what he was getting. “The resulting portraits, of which the sitters were oblivious, were of a quite unprecedented kind, people lost in thought, unaware of being observed, their gazes empty, waiting without expectation,” writes Peter Stepan in Fifty Photographers You Should Know. Michael W. Brooks, in Subway City: Riding the Trains, Reading New York, says, “Evans’ people sit quietly, drawn into themselves…In one sense, they are people who have not yet put on a mask…In another sense, however, they have drawn into themselves against the uproar of their surroundings. They are at once open and on their guard. They are both ordinary and mysterious.”
The result of this endeavour is the collection of portraits published as Many Are Called. But Walker kept this masterpiece under wraps for several decades. “The portraits in these pages were caught by a hidden camera, in the hands of a penitent spy and an apologetic voyeur,” the artist admits with a hint of wry wit. “But the rude and impudent invasion has been carefully softened and partially mitigated by a planned passage of time. These pictures were made twenty years ago and deliberately preserved from publication.”
The artist provides insight into the appeal of the pictures. “As it happens, you don’t see among them the face of a judge or a senator or a bank president. What you do see is at once sobering, startling, and obvious: these are the ladies and gentlemen of the jury.”
That the subway images were collected into a book, like many other Walker works, is no fluke. Walker did not see his photography in singular contexts. Though he preferred to make few changes in the darkroom outside of pragmatic tasks like cropping, he considered editing through curating, layout, and sequencing a vital part of his art. His work was meant to be viewed as series or in photographic essays, in portfolios with accompanying text usually written himself. “Evans had been from the beginning interested in the cumulative meaning of a group of photographs,” writes Jerry L. Thompson in Walker Evans At Work. “For twenty years he used Fortune as his forum, regularly presenting a small group of pictures centered around an idea.”
Once again, the variety of his interests in these series is staggering. One Fortune layout was from a communist summer camp; another was of precise, uncluttered, sharply focused images of tools. “Sensuous is the word,” he wrote in notes about his plans for this series. “Extremely careful though simple studio photographs. The photographer will assume that a certain monkey wrench is a museum piece.”
In 1936, he exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, a show based on his series of pictures of African sculptures. The MOMA had acquired his collection of 19th century American houses; Walker also left lists and wrote letters referring to his conceptions for series and sequences which would form the whole of an art piece. Some of these included, “spontaneous display;” “the dude ranch as a thing of beauty;” “pure display. How goods for sale are arrayed naturally, sometimes primitively, everywhere.” In his photo book, American Photographs, from 1938, he wrote, “The reproductions presented in this book are intended to be looked at in their given sequence.”
Certainly Walker was not alone in the concept of the photo essay- Lewis Hines’ had famously done series on child labour in the early 1900s. But it was still a groundbreaking approach. Walker perceived his essays as artistic features.
“The unappreciated artist is at once very humble and very arrogant, too,” Walker said in the Aperture Foundation’s Photography Speaks. “He collects and edits the world about him.” Walker’s work as art was the integral theme of his life. Indeed, his work and art were definitive of his identity. In a sense, there is no Walker Evans “behind the camera.” There was no such separation. As his peer stated, Walker practically was the camera.
In this same book, Walker states, “I think what I am doing is valid and worth doing, and I use the word transcendent. That’s very pretentious, but if I’m satisfied that something transcendent shows in a photograph I’ve done…it’s there, I’ve done it…That’s a hell of a thing to believe, but I believe it or I couldn’t act. It’s a very exciting, heady thing.”
Perhaps it’s not even fair to say, “there’s more to the man than his work,” although of course his life was filled with people and events just like anyone else’s. It is not surprising that he was entirely self-taught as a photographer. It feels irrelevant to report that he was born in Missouri in 1903 or that he studied French literature or that he worked, briefly, as a clerk on Wall Street. Walker had early ambitions to be a writer, and he did write, for such prominent publications as Time Magazine. He described himself as an “almost pathological bibliophile,” and esteemed literary influences such as Proust and Shakespeare and Eliot and e.e. cummings. He associated with figures like Hart Crane and Ernest Hemingway. These are all significant details, yet they seem almost superfluous in the Walker Evans narrative. Perhaps this is because, in his story, the details really just reflect the same longing to observe the world. Reading, writing, photography- all of it, in Walker’s case, show and tell.
Walker even joined the bohemian bandwagon and went to Paris in the ‘20s to hobnob with the beautiful and the damned. He had a wild time, he said. But even so, he was a man apart. Though like every other expatriate and Parisian, he loved drinking and philosophizing about art and literature, he found the whole scene tedious and was sickened by “moneyed, leisured, frivolous, superficial American” shtick of the F. Scott Fitzgerald-era glitterati.
His friendship with Hemingway happened while on assignment for the Cuba book, and involved plenty of drinking, of course. MOMA’s John Szarkowski described Walker’s work as “puritanically economical, precisely measured, frontal, unemotional, dryly textured, insistently factual,” qualities that undoubtedly appealed to the surly writer. After Hemingway’s suicide, it was discovered that he owned a small collection of unseen, unpublished Walker photographs that had been given to him during their time in Cuba.
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