Notes from Walker Evans: Depth of Field Exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery / Jan. 22, 2017
Walker Evans acquired his first camera, a small folding Vest Pocket Kodak, in April of 1926, as he was about to leave New York on his first trip to Europe. At the time he had hopes of becoming a writer along the lines of Ernest Hemingway or F. Scott Fitzgerald. Evans spent much of the following year in Paris where he became part of the bohemian ex-patriot scene, sat in on lectures at the Sorbonne and translated extended passages from the work of modern French authors such as Gustave Flaubert and Charles Baudelaire. He was also introduced to modern European photography and made his first photographs-mostly tourist pictures, but also self-portraits of himself in a mirror-during this time.
While Evans still thought of himself as a writer when he returned to New York in 1927, he was unable to write anything he was satisfied with over the following year. Frustration with his writing, together with a new understanding that the artistic material he was looking for could be found in the every life around him, led Evans to redirect his attention to photography by late 1928.
Evans’ work from this time displays a clear affinity with European Modernism especially the New Vision photography of the Bauhaus with its emphasis on unusual camera angles and search for form in contrast and light. This can be seen clearly in Evans’ early pictures of Manhattan architecture and the Brooklyn Bridge, in which the abstract composition of the picture takes precedence over visual description of the subject matter.
By 1930 Evans was moving away from an approach that emphasized form over content. Driven by a “growing interest in rendering what I saw,” his work became more closely aligned with the French photographer Eugene Atget’s precisely detailed photographs of the streets and architecture of Paris. At the same time, Evans’ photographs began to take on an almost literary narrative structure that reflected Flaubert’s emphasis on detached description and Baudelaire’s interest in ordinary street life.
While Evans’ early-1930s methodology was clearly linked to what he described as a “French aesthetic,” his subject matter instilled his work with an undeniably American character. As he later put it, “I think…mine was the first generation that went to Europe and instead of studying European art and coming back and imitating it, went to Europe and got a European technique and applied it to America.”
Brooklyn Bridge, 1929
In 1929 Evans was living in Brooklyn, on the same street as the Modernist poet Hart Crane (1899-1932) with whom he quickly became friends. Evans began to photograph the Brooklyn Bridge with a small folding camera just as Crane was completing his book-length poem The Bridge. Crane had originally hoped to use a painting by the American artist Joseph Stella as the frontispiece for the publication but, partly because of difficulties withStella and partly because he admired Evan’s pictures, Crane and his publishers decided to use three of Evans’ pictures in a letter he sent to Caresse Crosby, co-founder of Black Sun Press, as The Bridge was about to be released. He described Evans as “the most living, vital photographer of any whose work I know,” while proclaiming, “I rejoice that we have decided on his pictures rather than Stella’s.”
Evans’ photographs of the bridge still display the formalism of his earlier images of New York architecture, but the number of views he made suggests he was beginning to sense possibilities of meaning that went beyond his experiments with diagonal lines and viewing angles. His decision to work with elements such as barges passing below and the skyline seen through the bridge’s cables indicate he was aware of the poetic possibilities of his subject matter – an awareness that may have been stimulated by conversations with Crane.
It is worth noting that Evans made all of these images from Brooklyn, looking toward Manhattan – a borough of New York that, at least in the art world, carried far more social prestige than Brooklyn.
“Labor Anonymous,” Fortune Magazine, 1946
In August 1946 Evans produced a self-assigned photo-essay depicting workers as they left a factory in Detroit at the end of their shift. Evans stood on a street corner and photographed the workers against a plywood backdrop, their features clearly defined in the oblique afternoon light as they passed from right to left through his field of vision. He made about 180 exposures using the technique of photographing without looking through the lens he had used in the New York subway portraits of 1938-41 and the images he made for a Fortune story on the munitions industry in Bridgeport, Connecticut in 1941.
Fortune published eleven of the portraits on a two-page spread in its November 1946 issue under the title “On a Saturday Afternoon in Detroit.” This was a casual sampling of what would later be recognized as an innovative approach to street photography that emphasized the impact of working in series rather than with singular images. The tension between mass culture and the individual embodied in this approach also pervaded the text that accompanied Evans photographs, which read:
Most of the men on these pages would seem to have a solid degree of self-possession. By the grace of providence and the efforts of millions, including themselves, they are citizens of a victorious and powerful nation, and they appear to have preserved a sense of themselves as individuals. When editorialists lump them as “labor,” these laborers can no doubt laugh that one off.
Beauties of the Common Tool, 1995
The July 1955 issue of Fortune Magazine included a portfolio of Evans’ precisely composed photographs of hand tools. Presented under the title “Beauties of the Common Tool,” these pictures approached hand tools-such as wrenches, tinsnips and pliers-as sculptural objects. The images can be seen as an indication of Evans’ longstanding interest in the work of French poet and novelist Blaise Cendrars (1887-1961). Cendrars had declared that tools and other common objects were an appropriate subject matter for a modern artist and, in 1929, the journal Alhambra published an Evans photograph of a skyscraper under construction in conjunction with a passage from Cendrars’ novel Moravagine that Evans had translated into English. In a larger sense, Evans likely found parallels between the style of Cendrars’ writing-which has been associated with photographic impressions and cinematic montage-and his own approach to photography.
In the text Evans wrote for “The Beauties of Common Tool” he asserted that, “Among low-priced, factory-produced goods, none is so appealing to the senses as the ordinary hand tool. Hence a hardware store is a kind of offbeat museum show for the man who responds to good, clear “undesigned” forms. … Who would sully the lines of the tin-cutting shears on pages 105 with a single added bend or whorl? Or clothe in any way the fine naked impression of heft and bite in the crescent wrench on page 107?”
A sizeable portion of Evans’ 1971 solo exhibition at the Yale University Art Gallery was comprised of selections from Evans’ own sign collection and from that of his friend, the artist William Christenberry. The inclusion of these artifacts signaled the seriousness he invested in a process of collecting the everyday that closely paralleled his own understanding of photography. As Evans stated in a wall text for the exhibition.
The installation, here, of actual graphic “found objects” may need little or no interpretation via the written word. Assuredly, these objects may be felt-experienced-in this gallery by anyone, just as the photographer felt them in the field, on location. The direct, instinctive, bemused sensuality of the eye is what is in play-here, there, now, then. A distinct point, though is made in the lifting of these objects from their original settings. The point is that this lifting is, in the raw, what the photographer is doing with his machine, the camera, anyway, always. The photographer, the artist, “takes” a picture: symbolically he lifts an object or a combination of objects, and in so doing he makes a claim for his act of seeing in the first place. The claim is that he has rendered his object in some way transcendent, and that in each instance his vision has penetrating validity.
This discussion was extended in a carefully self-edited interview with his friend Leslie Katz, in which Evans commented on the importance of collecting:
You’ve got to collect. Pieces of the anatomy of somebody’s living…You contrive to ask around. Can you lead me to any material like that?…You know how a collector is. He gets excessively conscious of a certain object and falls in love with it and then pursue it…and it’s compulsive, and you can hardly stop.
Collecting, in all of its forms, was a logical continuation of Evan’s endless pursuit of the riches to be found in the vernacular.
Subway Portraits 1938-1941
1938 was one of the most pivotal years of Evans’ career. The FSA sent him a formal dismissal notice, ending an extended period of high productivity. The Museum of Modern Art in New York honoured him with a retrospective exhibition and, more importantly, an accompanying publication, American Photographs. The book and exhibition also represented a spike in his recognition and critical acclaim. Evans was famous, perhaps for a while, but again unemployed.
He responded with a hairpin turn in both his technical and visual focus. The large-formate camera, lights and tripod were exchanged for a handy 25mm camera with a fast lens. He was no longer finding his subjects en plein air, as in the rural southern sunlight, but was instead prowling New York City ‘s gray underground as a “penitent spy” secretly stealing likeness of subway passengers. The act required a new set of disciplines plus a long cable release running from his hand and up his sleeve to connect with the camera concealed inside a heavy topcoat. A few test rolls were made and proofed to see if it was a promising vein, but he set the project aside until early 1941 when it was completed with funding from a Guggenheim grant. Evans later cited Honore Daumier’s mid-nineteenth century images of Parisian public transit passengers as a point of reference for this project.
The subway portraits provided evidence that Evans could move away from his signature images and find an equally compelling new direction. Of greater import than the technical accomplishment of making the images was Evans’ declaration of the series as a new format, one that relied on the collective impact of multiple images rather than fully resolved individual portraits. His interest in newsreels might account for his use of a presentation format in which individual images resemble stills from a cinematic sequence.
Photographs of Debris
Although Evans claimed to have been influenced primarily by literary sources he was acquainted with a wide range of art. His collection of exhibition catalogues indicates a familiarity with Abstract Expressionism and an interest in the way its randomly fluid forms evokes the type of energy Evans found in the American street. The formal arrangement of Evans’ pictures of gutters and trash cans finds parallels in the texture and all-over composition of paintings by American artists such as Jackson Pollock and Clyfford Still. His interest in debris as subject matter recalls the French artist Jean Dubuffet’s engagement with formlessness and use of unconventional materials such as sand and straw as means to turn away from metaphysics and ground art in the baseness of the everyday.
Evans consciously echoed the emphasis on the debased that has been associated with a great deal of modern art in 1974 interview, when he stated:
A garbage can, occasionally, to me at least, can be beautiful. That’s because you’re seeing. Some people are able to see that-see it and feel it. I lean toward the enchantment, the visual power, of the aesthetically rejected subject.
Instant Colour Polaroid photographs, 1973-74
Evans began to work with Polaroid’s new SX-70 camera-and an unlimited supply of film provided by the company-in1973. The instant SX-70 prints were an ideal fit for an aging photographer who was losing the capacity to work in a darkroom. As with any camera Evans picked up, he intuitively grasped the range of pictorial possibilities that matched the capacity of the machine. The limited palette was of no concern, it was instant and it was colour. Best of all, the camera fit in his pocket-like the folding Kodak vest-pocket camera he used in the 1920s-and could be passed off as a toy. It allowed Evans to deftly play the role of the old man tinkering with an amateur’s camera, easing any tension between himself and the people he portrayed.
Between late 1973 and the end of 1974 Evans used the SX-70 to produce over 3,000 portraits, still lifes and images of signs. As Polaroid offered their services in making enlargements, a number of these were made into prints that were either five or eight inches square.
With the exception of two original prints, all the works on view here were made from scans of original prints. The thirty portraits are printed from files supplied by the Yale University Art Gallery.
Portraits of Friends
Evans is not recognized as a master of the portrait, but there is evidence that he should be. Having a friend in front of your camera is, in most cases, an advantage. Trust and openness are key to capturing the essence of a subject, and the rapport between photographer and sitter is evident in all of these images.
Evans’ portraits of his close friend, the writer James Agee, were made on a Long Island beach in 1937. Back lighting and under-exposure suppress shadow detail, but any technical issues are trumped by the intense eye contact that comes from enduring respect and mutual affection.
Evans rarely used more than on light for a portrait; no hair lights, back lights or reflective umbrellas were used to make these pictures. Berenice Abbott, Hart Crane, Cary Ross, Hanns Skolle and Ben Shahn are all caught in the simple, un-softed wattage of a single lightbulb. In contrast, the soft window light that gently washes over Paul Grotz makes an appropriately delicate rendering of a gentle man.
Evans despised celebrity portraits. He felt that a photographer could do little to overcome the predictable perceptions associated with fame and that the images produced in such an idiom would inevitably be predictable and superficial.