The Man Who Was Really a Camera: America’s Great Walker Evans (Part Two)

18 Jun

Last week we brought you Part One of  The Man Who Was Really a Camera: America’s Great Walker Evans, an in-depth look into one of the great American photographers. Here is Part Two:

by Lorette C. Luzajic

Walker’s many associates described him as charming and charismatic; he was also a lite version of a dandy, an American rendition, if you will, with astute observatory witticisms and a penchant for style. Even as he saw great beauty in the “vernacular,” (a favourite word) and ordinary, Walker was “an aesthete from the crown of his carefully barbered hair to the cap toes of his Peal benchmade shoes” (Daniel Mark Epstein, New Criterion, March 1, 2000.) Everyone knew that Walker was adventurous enough to embark on all kinds of trips, to wade into neighbourhoods that spanned the full spectrum of humanity, and to enjoy his fair share of parties and reveling.

General Store interior – Alabama USA

Yet somehow, it seems as if Walker was not a full participant in life. His circles of creative writers and artists threw themselves passionately into their world. Decadent and superficial though Walker may have judged them, there was an emotional engagement, a hunger to participate in the full spectrum of life’s rich pageant. Epstein noted that Walker exhorted students to complete work with intelligence, with faith, with cultivation.  “Passion he does not mention,” Epstein says, “because it cannot be acquired or reliably controlled.”

Outside of these circles of bohemia, Walker did not seem to get very close to others or to maintain or forge deep familial bonds. He had many friends, and yet there remained something implacable and unreachable about him. The emotional detachment wasn’t so much a mask as it was his very psyche itself.

His empathies were more analytical than practical. He expressed frustration in his notes over what he perceived as people’s inability to be honest about their “indifference.” Perhaps even Charles Burroughs’ memories of Walker’s prying presence in his family’s life are telling.

Walker’s connection to others in relationship to their art was especially superficial, and oftentimes transparently jealous and even downright mean. He didn’t seem able to summon any genuine praise for artists he knew personally. The successful Edward Steichen’s brilliant work was mere “slick technique, over all of which is thrown a hardness and superficiality…has nothing to do with any person.” Since outright dismissal of some greats like Alfred Stieglitz would be too obviously absurd, Walker resorted often to snide condescension. Apparently, Stieglitz’s belief that he would have been a great painter, too, “revealed a great insecurity.” Walker frequently dropped critical remarks alluding to a photographer’s sentimentalism, romanticism, or nostalgia, making clear time and time again his belief in his own superiority, since his works were not tainted with such frippery.

Some believe Walker’s underhanded insinuations and sleights extended into his work. “While often portrayed as a neutral documentarian of the American scene, Evans  in fact intended to offend not only the polite Victorian sensibilities of people like his parents but also the ‘smuggly rich,’ the pretentious scene-makers of the art world, do-gooders of the Communist crowd, and any other identifiable group of betes noires,” said art writer Douglas Eklund.

Not all of Walker’s cruelties were so subliminal, however. He said this of H.G. Wells: ”not a poet, not an artist, not an historian. Just a goddamn little socialist.” Book reviewer Nicholas Fox Weber also quotes the photographer referring to his relatives. ”I got an immediate impression of false teeth, dandruff, adenoids, varicose veins and halitosis of the eardrums. . . . How fatal it has been that all the women have ruled the men right out of their masculinity, independence, courage, will and at last, brains even.”  One colleague he called “phony to the fingertips.” He referred to his supporter and mentor, photographer Ralph Steiner, as “a bitter little Jew.” Unfortunately, there is quite a selection of antisemitic comments to choose from.

With women, Walker’s role as observer and emotional detachment also seem to have usurped other important aspects of relationships. Sometimes the detachment was more like downright disgust. For example, he expressed revulsion for pregnant women, dismissing a woman “in that condition.” He loved Georgia O’Keeffe but was disinterested in her artistic passions. He was in love with his first wife, Jane Smith, but after their divorce he excised her mention from future editions of a book he had dedicated to her.  In a post-divorce letter to her, he declared, “From now on I will consider you dead.”

As Weber astutely remarked, “How strange when someone whose art would suggest humanity seems lacking in it.”

The biographer Rathbone opined that “his sex drive was inverted into a purely visual lust,” a comment that may be as insightful as it is speculative. In her biography of Caroline Blackwood, Dangerous Muse, Nancy Schoenberger writes, “Caroline would be introduced to the city by this sublime interpreter of deep-grained American life.” Evans was in his fifties and Caroline was a young woman. He was smitten by her tempestuous, fiery nature and her beauty. Nonetheless, Caroline maintained there was no sexual interaction; they would drive around looking at junk stores, or he would suggest books that she should read. Caroline described him as a “fantasist” when it came to women. Though anyone may understandably refrain from divulging details of their intimate life, it is quite likely indeed that Walker was content to show her what he saw of the world and to take pictures of her.

Others attested to Evans’ penchant for collecting tawdry erotic novels. Rathbone said that he was perceived by his peers as someone who was only interested in “women he was sure he could never seduce.”  It seemed he enjoyed most to witness and show, in his working life and his romantic life as well. His role as observer permeated everything; it was so all consuming that one might say it sublimated his actual living with looking.

Other accounts defy the decidedly hands-off approach in these ones. James Mellow, whose biography, titled simply Walker Evans, suggested all sorts of soap operatic entanglements. Mellow has been accused of tawdry salacity; others appreciate his frank realism and his respected tenure as a biographer. Mellow implies a number of homoerotic friendships, notably with John Cheever. There was also the alleged topsy turvy tumbling of Walker into bed with his colleague James Agee- and Agee’s wife. Though Mellow is careful to buffer such assertions with possiblies and probablies, there can be no doubt of hearty experimentations of some sort or another. But what one explores as a young person is seldom definitive of their erotic identity; curiousity leads to many dead ends, not just open doors.

Nor does a livelier immersion in physical adventure necessarily negate a more comfortable identity as an emotional bystander. Even Cheever’s reflections, if true, indicate more curiousity on Walker’s part than robust physicality. Quoted by both Rathbone and Mellow, Cheever rather crudely recalls that Walker’s “enormous” masculinity “showed only the most fleeting signs of life.”

“Everybody by rote went to bed with everybody else, and the result was an emotional desert and confusion,” Evans himself said in Mellow’s biography. Perhaps this statement is the most telling one of all.

Following his chaste romance with Lady Blackwood, Walker married a “trophy wife,” a stunning woman thirty years his junior. Isabelle Storey fell head over heels for the famous photographer; in her book, Walker’s Way, she describes how he showed her all the important things she was eager to know. But their marriage was empty; Walker was cold and selfish and not the passionate person she had naively believed him to be.

Storey stayed with him for more than ten years even though she described her husband as a man who “couldn’t love.”  She was reluctant to leave a sick and aging man. But Walker didn’t stop looking in order to be fully present with her; she watched him watching his young female students. Storey told Marilyn Bauer of TCPalm News, “Walker in the end didn’t really like women. He was attracted to them. He once said he was only faithful to his negative, and that was true.”

Undoubtedly, Walker’s artistic vision could not have happened without the particular makeup of his psyche. The intensity of his level of attraction to the visual world resulted in detachment in other arenas of his existence, or perhaps his singular obsession was the result of his lack of emotional engagement. Like anyone else, he had weaknesses or imbalances or traits that were consequential in his particular set of circumstances. Certainly, each of us possesses private turmoil and inner demons.  Evans is hardly the only human to seek refuge from these, or to dull his interactive experiences through alcoholism.

I have always believed that whitewashing one’s own or someone else’s unpleasant side is to deny reality, and worse, to deny them their full humanity. That said, Walker’s sins were rather mild when compared with everyman. Each of us says hideous things about others, but most of us aren’t famous and will not be called to account for every carelessness. Clearly the feelings of others were of some consideration to him, as evidenced in his concern for the privacy of the subway riders he had photographed. These pictures were important to him as an artistic triumph, a success he denied himself, for the sake of discretion, by waiting decades before publishing.

Walker was never the longwinded confessional type; he was an intelligent and intuitive person who acknowledged that he had, like everyone else, made some poor choices and regretful errors. Speaking with Yale Alumni Magazine a year before his fatal stroke, Walker was asked whether his attraction to photographing mundane objects was because of the aesthetic challenges the topics presented. His response was quite personal and revelatory about how he looked at the world- and how he looked at himself.

“No, I’m just made that way,” he said.  “It’s partly rather perverse. I got a lot of my early momentum from disdain of accepted ideas of beauty, and that’s partly good, it’s partly original. It’s also partly destructive. I wasn’t a very nice young man. I was tearing down everything if possible. I only see that in retrospect. It was just in me, as there are certain curious things in you that you’ll wonder at, later on when you’re my age, but you won’t ever get to the bottom of.”

A year or two before his death in 1975, Walker bought a Polaroid camera. Though he had avoided colour completely, declaring that photographers confused “colour with noise,” he explored full colour instant photography in the last year of his life.

These provided another extensive document of tiny details from the man who was really a camera. He photographed anything- people, especially, and words and signs.

They provide a stunning demonstration of the changes in Americana since the time of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. America had transformed into a raucous, booming, bustling hub of high octane commerce and invention. Suburbia had been invented and mass production had become mainstream.  There is an unfathomable leap from the destitution and slow-paced simplicity in the Depression world to the frantic, frenetic kind of both excitement and desperation captured in the Polaroids. It was Walker’s almost Warholian project, in the era of instant gratification. It was the ‘70s, after all.

What is striking in this study of Walker’s closing chapter and curtain call is not a social commentary on either the ugliness of modernity or the wretched hell of the past. It is simply looking, watching reality unfold and change, and seeing the beautiful and ugly things that made up the world. “A garbage can, occasionally, to me at least, can be beautiful. That’s because you’re seeing,” Walker said in a 1974 interview. “I lean toward the enchantment, the visual power, of the esthetically rejected subject.”

There’s no particular agenda in the instant photography, Walker’s final legacy. As always, the camera was  “just looking.”

“I used to try to figure out precisely what I was seeing all the time,” the artist said.  “Until I discovered I didn’t need to. If the thing is there, why, there it is.”

Walker had a playful heyday in that final chapter. He took over 2600 colourful pictures with that Polaroid.

Perhaps it was the most spontaneous he had ever been.

Visit Lorette C. Luzajic  at Ideafountain.

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