Mary Hawthorne

  • Walker Evans by James Mellow
    Perseus, 654 pp, £15.99, February 2002, ISBN 1 903985 13 7

The early photographs of Walker Evans are now so familiar that it is easy to forget how radically different they seemed at the time, and to take their subtle influence for granted, or, now that the collective longing appears to be for nothing so much as to be relieved of the burden of thinking or remembering at all, to fail to discern it altogether. By the late 1950s, Evans was hovering on extinction. A decade-long resuscitation began with the 1960 reissue of his collaborative effort with James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which galvanised a new generation of social idealists and photographers. Then came the reissue of his book American Photography in 1962; a MoMA exhibition, in 1966, of subway photographs he’d taken in the 1930s and 1940s but had never shown; and, finally, a second MoMA retrospective in 1971. By the mid 1970s, there were very few serious photographers whose work didn’t in some way allude to Evans’s sensibility, or ‘person’. (Of the work of Eugène Atget, his most important photographic influence, Evans wrote, in 1931: ‘His general note is lyrical understanding of the street, trained observation of it, special feeling for patina, eye for revealing detail, over all of which is thrown a poetry which is not "the poetry of the street” or "the poetry of Paris", but the projection of Atget’s person’ – suggesting that, at the age of 28, Evans had a remarkably sophisticated understanding not only of Atget’s work but also of what he himself was striving to articulate.)

Famously and insistently elusive, Evans often referred to his own picture-taking in deceptively plain terms, once as being ‘a semi-conscious reaction against right thinking and optimism – an attack on the establishment. Wanted to disturb them,’ he said. ‘I could just hear my father saying: "Why do you want to look at these scenes, they’re depressing. Why don’t you look at the nice things in life?”’ Then, towards the end of his life, when he was teaching photography at Yale, he encouraged his students ‘to seek to have a cultivated life and an education’. They would make better photographs, he claimed, because ‘a man who has faith, intelligence and cultivation will show that in his work. Fine photography is literature, and it should be.’ These seemingly opposed and simple approaches were not opposed or simple at all, and together they constitute the basis of his innately critical, nuanced and decidedly ‘American’ approach – despite its European underpinnings. His intelligence was at once sceptical and abstractly poetic, closer to Wallace Stevens (‘Poetry is not personal’) than to Walt Whitman, with whom he has so often been paired (sometimes by himself). ‘I guess I’m deeply in love with America, really,’ Evans said later in his life. And then, by way of qualification, ‘Anyway, traditional, old-style America.’

By ‘traditional, old-style America’, he meant vernacular culture: the ordinary – frequently damaged or verging on extinction (‘Joe’s Auto Graveyard, Pennsylvania’, 1936) – often juxtaposed against an increasingly surrealist American landscape informed by advertising imagery and signage (‘Houses and Billboards in Atlanta’, 1936). He spent his life documenting it – or, rather, photographing it in the ‘documentary style’ – and the roots of this love are interesting to speculate on. James Mellow’s exhaustive Walker Evans offers a trove of previously unpublished material – Evans’s diaries, field notes, letters and so on, along with papers from critical sources – but the author died before the book was completed, and it suffers as a result, mainly from a lack of synthesis. (Belinda Rathbone’s 1995 book, the more limited and succinct Walker Evans: A Biography, which came out before the archive was established, gives a better sense of the narrative shape of Evans’s life.) Walker Evans, the catalogue that accompanied the Met retrospective in 2000, contains additional valuable information and perspective; of note are Maria Morris Hambourg’s reading of the development of Evans’s early aesthetic sense and Jeff Rosenheim’s detailed study of Evans’s work in the South. Taken together, these contributions work to fill in the vague outlines of one of the most important American photographers of the past seventy years – a man whose life and work nevertheless continue steadfastly to resist certain interpretation more than a quarter of a century after his death.

The second of two children, Evans was born in St Louis in 1903. His father was a handsome advertising executive; his mother a pretty housewife (with whom he had a lifelong ambivalent relationship). When Evans was four, his father took a job in Chicago and moved the family to Kenilworth, a new, affluent suburb which had been modelled on the English village. There, Evans seems to have enjoyed as idyllic a childhood as can reasonably be hoped for, protected and comfortable, even though the family’s circumstances were significantly more modest than those of their neighbours and their home bordered the railroad. As a child, Evans drew and painted and often retreated to the secret worlds of books and diaries. When he was older, he took snapshots of ordinary things and put them in albums (‘Pair of pants – Hamilton, Montana – 1916’). He also became an obsessive drawer of maps, suggesting both a love of order and a fascination with the idea of magically containing the vastness of the world within a formal outline; he liked to repeat things. What is certain is that his visual acumen was already present, and was cultivated from a young age.

Evans was around 12 when the family moved to Toledo, Ohio – his father had been hired by Willys-Overland, an automobile company – and he took it badly. Making the transition from imitation English pastoral life to the unsavoury realities of a tough immigrant city, Evans said, ‘must have produced probably a minor psychosis in me . . . fear – Yes, insecurity, too. I was just nobody.’ Brutal though the experience was, it opened his eyes to the starker components of life which informed his later ideas about what he felt worth photographing. In 1934, in an unfinished letter, he came up with a kind of stream of consciousness list: ‘American city is what I’m after . . . 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).’ Other possibilities: ‘Chicago business stuff’; ‘Automobiles and the automobile landscape’; ‘Architecture’; ‘American urban taste, commerce . . . the street smell, the hateful stuff’; ‘The movies’; ‘Advertising’.

Further Dickensian rites of passage ensued: his parents separated (his father moved in with the woman next door), Evans and his mother and sister moved to New York, and he was shipped off to a boarding school in Connecticut, where he became unmanageable. ‘I suppose I was near what is now called a breakdown,’ he said, in hindsight, adding, with the touching stoicism that was a mainstay of his character, ‘but at the time we just rode it out.’ At the end of the year, he was encouraged to leave. Having pulled himself together somewhat by his senior year, he was admitted to Phillips Andover, and there, though his academic performance remained indifferent, he found salvation in books.

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