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How The West Was

Walker Evans

Walker Evans is eluding me. He's been everywhere already - the Deep South, Havana, Tahiti, Pennsylvania, New England, Chicago, New York, trying to figure out his relationship to the America he photographed, and mine to his. I'm following him around, searching through numerous volumes, but what was the drive that propelled him to snap the façades, alleys and faces of everyday life? The man himself remains just out of vision, numbly absent from all the places to which he's borne witness. I'm seeing what he saw, but what he felt is harder to grasp.

The jacket of The Hungry Eye collapses time along its spine: from, youth to age, front to back. On the cover, Evans gazes straight out, one arrow-head of his shirt collar peeking over the rim of his wool sweater. Two distinctly different eyes, one wider open than the other. Jerry Thompson's 1973 photo on the back of the book mimics the front's 1929 self-portrait pose, Evans' cheek flesh now rolling into a white country-bumpkin haystack of a beard, an underchin halo for the ageing Yale professor, two years from his death.1

* * *

I say 'eluding', but that's not exactly true. I see him everywhere. Everywhere I go I've been seeing places in America that turn out to have been just the kind of thing he photographed, aspects of this epic land he'd perceived and archived long ago. The light and shadow on an empty staircase. The melancholy actuality of city spaces too mundane to celebrate. Household goods in a store window. A poster peeling from a wall. Garbage in the gutters of New York. The joy of signs.

* * *

Time and again I find myself in front of an Evans photograph, and a little gasp escapes (glee? envy? mere shock of recognition?) because he'd seen it too, before. Is it possible to be influenced by someone whose work you didn't yet know? To see the world refracted according to their lambent gaze? Or is it that this country inevitably draws the hungry eye to its dispossessed remnants, those parts that surely won't appear in travel magazines or 'Convention and Visitors Centre' propaganda?

* * *

'The right things can be found in Pittsburgh, Toledo, Detroit (a lot in Detroit, I want to get in some dirty cracks, Detroit's full of chances)...People, all classes, surrounded by bunches of the new down and out. Automobiles and the automobile landscape. Architecture, American urban taste, commerce... the street smell, the hateful stuff, women's clubs, fake culture, bad education, religion in decay.'2

* * *

America: what kind of country was this, Walker? Or rather, what kind of America am I looking at, looking at your photographs? It seems often a desultory place (ennobled, nonetheless, by your cool optical allusions). You set out to undercut the myth of America, the upbeat, cheerleader nation. To show how, in this land of personal freedom, each individual searches for their own narcotic phial of utopia ('EVERY BOTTLE STERILIZED'). For exposing this fiction of good-times America, you yourself have been awarded mythic status: Walker Evans, anti-hero - candid documentarist of a civilisation on its way to decadence. As if, by isolating your lowing voice of disaffection, its bacillic power could be contained.

* * *

'I do have a weakness for the disadvantaged, for poor people, but I'm suspicious of it. I have to be, because that should not be the motive for artistic or aesthetic action. If it is, your work is either sentimental or motivated toward 'improving society.' I don't believe an artist should do that with his work...The problem is one of staying out of left politics and still avoiding Establishment patterns.'3

* * *

A friend tells me there's this bit about John Cheever fucking Walker Evans in Cheever's letters. Somehow it comes as no surprise. Cheever briefly worked as Evans' assistant, shortly after arriving in New York to make his career as a writer.

* * *

Just when I thought I'd thought of something worth photographing, like the variegated faces on public transit, I find out Walker's been there before, prying with a Contax hidden in his coat. His New York subway was a prim place in the late 30s: everyone wore a hat and a scowl. What were you doing, Walker, fiddling with that instrument beneath your coat? What kind of surreptitious scrutiny did this entail? They sure as hell stared back, some of those turkey-ladies, unaware that by looking you straight in the eye (which today would be a downright foolish thing to do on a New York subway) they were inadvertently consigning themselves to posterity. Did you choose them carefully, pick them for the quintessence of their facial countenances, or was it just the luck of the draw?

* * *

'The collection is at least an impure chance-average lottery selection of its subjects - human beings in a certain established time and place...The portraits...were caught by a hidden camera in the hands of a penitent spy and an apologetic voyeur...The crashing non-euphoria of New York subway life may someday be recorded by a modern Dickens or Daumier. The setting is a sociological goldmine awaiting a major artist.'4

* * *

Available light gives a crepuscular, Engels-Manchester thickness to these portraits, as if he's plucked these people momentarily (and forever) from the grime. Black coats and suits merge into the tonal darkness, leaving white faces to emerge like reversed-out nuns' from their cowls. Face flesh and finger flesh, and not much visible besides. There's lettering, of course: the archaic white capitals of the train destinations ('7th AVE LOCAL SOUTH FERRY 145TH ST. LENOX AVE), countered by thick black headlines on the Daily News ('PAL TELLS HOW GUNGIRL KILLED', 'KENNEDY FIGHTS AID BRITAIN BILL'). Was there a wicked thrill in picking off your candidates, Walker, knowing each relationship would never be consummated, except in the darkroom? Did you follow them with your eyes as they stepped off the train and walked along the platform, the train moving in parallel, slowly at first, then faster, the image inside your coat growing more magical with each expanding yard, so permanent a record of so fleeting an encounter?

* * *

'When I was twenty-one Walker Evans invited me to spend the night at his apartment. I said yes. I dropped my clothes (Brooks). He hung his (also Brooks) neatly in a closet. When I asked him how to do it he seemed rather put off. He had an enormous cock that showed only the most fleeting signs of life. I was ravening. I came all over the sheets, the Le Corbusier chair, the Matisse lithograph and hit him under the chin. I gave up at around three, dressed and spent the rest of the night on a park bench near the river.'5

* * *

Walker Evans' America is a continent medallioned with signs. Handpainted or illuminated, in script as yet unregimented by the edicts of corporate design consultants or fast-food franchises. Words hang from the chests of buildings, declaring raisons d'être which facades alone cannot express, or they're flung into the sky, on stilts and frames, dressed with a hedgehog bristle of bulbs. The city is awash in edible inducements: '...AGHETTI' crowns the picture of a girl on Fulton Street, her glowering face caught, in sharp focus, in the momentary valley between three trilbied businessmen moving in the opposite direction. 'ICE COLD MILK' runs a subtitle along the lower edge of views into a New York lunch counter: lunching men munching. 'BEST FOOD FOR LESS' promises the Eagle Open Kitchen, before which a stern-faced fellow raises an arm and tries to rouse the Depression era crowd. 'SODA, CANDY, MORTON'S ICE CREAM' hover in the background of New York bedecked for a parade, while wax arms and other trophies hang from a simple wooden lath, like totems from Atget's Paris, or Aragon's, or Baudelaire's. Evans understands, long before Venturi, that words are as much a part of the landscape as the surfaces and volumes they adhere to. That words make places; that they anchor location, not merely communication.

* * *

Were you by any chance on an undercover advertising assignment for Coca-Cola, Walker? So often, in the corners and centres and margins of your frames, the familiar curlicues of its logo can be discerned, the brand name already an icon - just the first of too many products to imprint themselves on America's hide. (Would you have appreciated the Golden Arches, or Taco Bell or Jiffy Lube as much?) In the downtown Havana of 1933, the Savannah Negro Quarter of 1935, a corner of New Orleans, a country store, the soft drink is a soft sell. Five men sitting on a bench near New Orleans, while behind them, painted on the timber of a barn, the same brand flaunts its trademark flourishes, while 'EVERY BOTTLE STERILIZED' forms a reassuring frieze behind their heads. Even in the patched-together interior of a West Virginia coalminer's home, a cardboard cut-out advert for Coke ('the pause that keeps you going ') shares the wall with another point-of-sale promotion for a drugstore chain, both found objects as proudly displayed as if they were Giotto frescoes. America's burgeoning corporate culture has widened its net and reached its tentacles from the clamorous city even into the rural manual-labourer's primitive hut. Here you are, Walker, wandering the land just as patent beverages begin to swallow up the culinary (and cultural) vernacular in a million fizzy gulps. Crude but individually-crafted signs will soon be substituted by a homogeneous taste for 'Pop'.

* * *

'I am fascinated by man's work and the civilisation he's built. In fact, I think that's the interesting thing in the world, what man does. Nature bores me as an art form...In fact, nature photographs downright bore me...I think 'Oh Yes. Look at that sand dune. What of it?' But if you're in love with civilisation, as I am, you stick to that.'6

* * *

Women's faces in the landscape, some real, some merely paper representations. A Havana goddess wearing a wan smile, peering out from a window behind a gate. A black woman with voluptuous lips and fur stole, standing by those steps to the elevated railway at 42nd Street. The quizzical expression of a woman in an open top car, Ossining, New York. In Houses and Billboard in Atlanta. movie stars Anne Shirley and Carole Lombard take centre stage on a wall in the middle ground. Lombard's face appears on a large white movie poster, emblazoned on the wall, which bears the title 'Love Before Breakfast'. She has a come-hither look, and a black eye - the consequence, no doubt, of her unseemly appetite. Standing sentry behind this mutable surface, two drab wooden houses stare back dully at the camera, their oval first floor balconies each an architectural equivalent of Lombard's ocular stigma.

* * *

'Cheever wrote a young gay friend that he and Walker Evans had briefly been lovers when he first came to New York. In a letter he vividly described ejaculating all over Evans' furniture and art works before departing at three in the morning. This account, obviously written to amuse, may contain no truth at all. Frances Lindley, who has read Evans' private papers in her capacity as editor, thinks it highly unlikely. Evans had lovers of both sexes, but nowhere mentions Cheever as among them.'7

* * *

In the summer of 1936, you take leave from the Farm Security Administration to work on a project with your writer friend James Agee, commissioned by Fortune, where the latter has been working for four years. The two of you set off down south to do an early version of the 'Week-In-The-Life-Of' journalism staple, except here the subjects are dirt-poor sharecroppers in Hale County, Alabama. Agee roughs it, staying with the farmers; you can't take the discomfort and stay at a nearby hotel. He struggles with the ethics of this kind of reporting, observes your careful mode of intervention, attempts to emulate the photo-documentary method in his own written account. As one perceptive critic put it, Evans 'talked to the various people, he asked their permission, he let them arrange themselves comfortably, he took the pictures only when they were ready. And he himself stood openly facing them.'8

* * *

'On one side of the porch of the house, Walker made pictures with the big camera; all to stand there on the porch as you were in the average sorrow of your working dirt and get your pictures made; and to you [Mrs Ricketts] it was as if you and your children and your husband and these others were stood there naked in front of the cold absorption of the camera in all your shame and pitiableness to be pried into and laughed at; and your eyes were wild with fury and shame and fear...'9

* * *

Returning north, Fortune declines to publish your joint findings. It takes until August 1941 for the work to reach an audience, released by Houghton Mifflin as Let us Now Praise Famous Men. (It's a critical bomb.) In the intervening years, 1938-41, you've been on the New York subway, surreptitiously making portraits of the average urban citizen. Is there a connection here, between the self-restraint demanded down in Alabama, where the fine line between documentation and exploitation was so apparent, and the compulsive wilfulness of taking portraits on the sly, of people who could not know you were surveying them?

* * *

'A penitent spy and apologetic voyeur' you say, and yes, you kept these subway images from sight for decades. (MoMA finally presents the series as 'Many are Called' in 1966, though some have been shown earlier in a couple of magazines). But then later, you're at it again, taking random portraits on the streets of Chicago and Detroit, though now with a Rolleiflex held in plain sight. Portraits of people, portraits of buildings, your own Citizens of the Twentieth Century, a provisional catalogue of American types. And what of that photo you took in 1936, Penny Picture Display, Birmingham: men, women, boys and girls, all-smiling, all-satisfied, all Sunday-best Americans. Are you saying their jovial expressions are a lie? With each depression of the shutter - out on the streets of the mid-West, or in the penumbra of Manhattan - you're cancelling out one of those anonymous Penny smiles, each genuine harried scowl caught on your emulsion a strike against those inch-wide increments of 'fake culture'.

* * *

American Photographs is a text built of images. Readers must make their own way from one to the next, infer the linkages; the montage is the message. Walker has strong opinions about editing and layout, whether on the page or in the museum: a week before the 'American Photographs' show opens at MoMA in 1938, he jettisons the curator's hang, and mounts it himself, overnight, gluing some of the cardboard-mounted photos directly to the wall. 11 (And who's to say which version of a given image is definitive: multiple variants of 'canonic' shots exist, some printed on postcard-sized sheets of photographic paper, with maybe just a section framed.)

* * *

I've tracked you down, Walker, to the little square boxes they keep you in at the New York Public Library. Thread the plastic ribbons through the reel, and start scanning through these wheels of Fortune. You succumbed to the Establishment in 1943, joining Time-Life Inc. doing book reviews for Time, then in 1945 shifting to Fortune where you sat out 20 years as staff photographer. Colleagues recall your defiantly idiosyncratic behaviour, your 'complete disregard for the practical mechanics of large-scale magazine production.' Says one: 'His attitude was that it was kind of nice for him to do these courtesies to Time, Inc. He didn't want to be employed exactly. But it was a convenience.'12

* * *

Once a photographic negative, then a paper reproduction, now your photographs are reduced to tiny specks on film again; they come to light as projections, hovering on the tilted surface of the microfilm kiosk. Words and images, equally phantom. Sequences of double-spreads rush by in vertical succession; no more horizontal leafing through each majestic issue. Without the tactile experience of turning pages, it's easy to miss the 'slow time' your portfolios inserted between the surrounding tracts on booming industry and boisterous advertising plates.

* * *

I wonder about the Fortune years. Here, the man who, early on, couldn't decide whether he wanted to be a writer or a painter, makes photographs and illustrates them with prose of his own devising. Wrestles, in their subtexts, with his own ambivalence about working within the padded cell of the Luce empire, salary-man and fifth-columnist for the mouthpiece of big business. Here, too, he's fastidious about the layout of his work, fine tuning each poème en prose to achieve graphic, as well as literary, grace. Mistrusting the magazine's printers, he sometimes crops his negatives with scissors or a blade, producing irregular edges that inevitably have to be trimmed again, allowing little margin for the loss on full-bleed pictures when pages are trimmed for binding.13

* * *

There's something mawkish about the Fortune passages, short elegiac reveries so far removed in tone from the adjacent articles and images. The stories draw attention to aspects of the culture which are fast disappearing: an America of stable values, elegant Victorian architecture, parlour chairs. Evans' portfolios often have a lamentational air, though the photographs are blunt, envisaging for the record, not evaluating. So many of the titles ('Downtown: A Last Look Backward'; 'Before They Disappear', 'The Twilight of American Woolen') hint at covert sympathy with those who resist the blandishments of 'progress', and cling instead to vestiges of an obsolescent phase of man-made America. 'The Wreckers' dwells lovingly on New York buildings in the course of demolition. 14 In 'Chicago: A Camera Exploration', you note that 'in common with most large American cities, Chicago is decaying in a sort of corporeal self-strangulation. And Chicago decays as it does everything else - spectacularly and speedily.' In 'Beauties of the Common Tool' you lavish full pages on portraits of simple prosthetic devices, cheap items of hardware that make mundane manual tasks a pleasure - possibly the most serene and luminous of all your photographs.15 And in 'Vintage Office Furniture' you celebrate the world of roll-top desks, brass-handled cabinets, and the gentlemanly ethic they supported. 'Are there men in hiding', you ask, 'who like their old desks, who think and work extremely well behind them?' Contemporary office furniture designers (to whom the previous issue had been devoted) may 'alter the entire face of business in a matter of years now' but, as you somewhat smugly add, savouring your own foresight, 'when this happens a photographic record like the collection on these pages will be wanted by historians.'16

* * *

'Evans was and is interested in what any present time will look like as the past.'17

* * *

You profess to reject nostalgia, Walker. 'To be nostalgic is to be sentimental. To be interested in what you see that is passing out of history...that's not an act of nostalgia.'18 But a piled of junked 30s automobiles (Joe's Auto Graveyard, 1936) can look historic, melancholy, or merely quaint to my eye. It's harder to see them as recently-functional, now discarded (How might you regard a heap of used ZX81 computers?). The 'as found' quality, or what Agee called 'the power and beauty...in absolute plainness', has worn away. Something similar applies to my reading of your photographs. Now the 80s are over, with Sherrie Levine's appropriations already looking 'like...the past', is it possible to see Walker Evans without filters, not just as Dan Graham's precursor, private eye of America's dumb, forgotten spaces? To take your images once again as 'documentary' views of what once was?

* * *

The more I think about the Fortune work, the more difficult it is to avoid concluding you were a disenchanted atavist at heart. (You want it both ways: to stand up and account for what is 'passing out of history,' but also to stand back from a political position vis à vis those changes.) You come across as someone for whom the 'old' industrial America - preferably hand-made - was intrinsically better than the machine-powered 'modern' times in which you came of age.

* * *

How many sloughed-off utopias do we peel back, or peer through, in looking at your work today? The curdled Eden which you represent is a palimpsest of the now-historic times in which you took your photographs (seen through the many-layered haze of subsequent evaluations) and your own then-recent past - the newly-outmoded culture to whose demise you appointed yourself witness, freeze-framing grains as they passed from 'now' to 'then' through the hourglass of your viewfinder. Where is the dividing line between nostalgia and conservation? Between the flâneur's wistful gaze and the indulgence of retardataire melancholia? Or are we perpetually straining to keep sight of that singular figure - 'Walker Evans' - rapidly receding down the platform, as the train of history moves on.

* * *

Let me tell you, Walker, 'any present time' includes your own. I catch sight of you, a few steps ahead of me, disappearing up the staircase to the elevated railway. The beautiful woman with the fur, who diverted your glance for a moment from the abstractions of light and shade on street furniture...she's gone, melted into the crowd on 42nd Street. I quicken my stride, running to the staircase, stopping still at its foot. (You're long gone, and so is the elevated railway). 'Royal Baking Powder, Royal Baking Powder, Royal Baking Powder', they recite, in rhythmic progression. Ah yes: up the risers.

1. Gilles Mora and John T. Hill, Walker Evans: The Hungry Eye (New York: Harry N. Abrams. London: Thames & Hudson, 1993).

2. Jerry Thompson, and John T. Hill, ed., Walker Evans at Work (New York: Harper & Row, 1982) p.98

3. Evans, quoted in William Stott, Documentary Expression and Thirties America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973) p.320

4. ibid., p.160

5. Benjamin Cheever, ed., The Letters of John Cheever (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988, p.304

6. Lincoln Caplan, ed. 'Walker Evans on Himself', The New Republic, November 13, 1976, p.26

7. Scott Donaldson, John Cheever (New York: Random House, 1988) p.68

8. Carol Shloss, In Visible Light: Photography and the American Writer, 1840-1940 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), p.195

9. James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1941, 1960, p.363

10. Lincoln Kirstein, 'Photographs of America: Walker Evans', in Walker Evans, American Photographs (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1938) p.197

11. The Hungry Eye op. cit., p.160

12. quoted in Lesley K. Baier, Walker Evans at Fortune 1945-1965, (Wellesley, Mass: Wellesley College Museum, 1977), p.12

13. ibid ., pp.13-15

14. Fortune, May 1951, pp.102-105

15. Fortune, July 1955, pp.103-107

16. Fortune, August, 1953, pp.123-127

17. Walker Evans at Work, op cit., p.151

18. Leslie Katz, 'Interview with Walker Evans', Art in America, March-April 1971, p.87

Walker Evans: The Hungry Eye (1993) by Gilles Mora and John T. Hill, is published by Harry N Abrams, New York and Thames and Hudson, London. 'Walker Evans & Dan Graham' was conceived by Jean-François Chevrier for the Witte de With centre for contemporary art, Rotterdam.

Issue 15

First published in Issue 15

Mar - Apr 1994
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