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.

The idea of being a ‘nobody’ was clearly unacceptable to Evans, and his difficult years suggest that he spent a lot of time trying to figure out how not to be one. At Andover, he capitalised on his good looks, charm and innate taste, and emerged a Baudelairean dandy, befriending like-minded would-be bohemians – outsiders and dreamers who, like himself, had reinvented themselves with the aid of European and Modernist literature. The books and journals Evans read corroborated his own fears, desires and tentative understanding of the world; he recognised himself in them and the recognition gave him courage and confidence. The following year, rejected by Yale, he decided on Williams. Once there, he scarcely attended classes, preferring to spend his time in the library. After a year, he moved back to New York, eventually taking a job in the Map Room of the New York Public Library. He begged his father to send him to Paris, and a few years later, when Evans was 23, his father relented.

Evans’s stay in Paris couldn’t have been more unglamorous: he was mostly miserable, as newly arrived Lucien de Rubemprés are supposed to be. (To his mortification, his mother also showed up.) He met none of the famous expats living there, or any of the natives for that matter. He glimpsed Joyce, whom he revered, and Hemingway from a distance (they later met in Cuba when Evans was on assignment); tentative literary endeavours came to nothing. He made cryptic lists, suggesting various states of mind. Travelling south to Cannes, he wrote, ‘Solitude.’ At Juan-les-Pins: ‘Solitude, soleil, santé.’ A few times, he fell again into a serious depression (something he appears to have suffered from periodically all his life): ‘I don’t write to you because my erstwhile dashing spirit is dormant,’ he wrote to Hanns Skolle, a painter whom he had befriended in the Library in New York. ‘My self-analysis is becoming self-laceration; my failures call for such ardent criticism (and get it) that I am in a fair way . . . to what?’ He returned to the United States a few months later, and tried again to write. The ambition didn’t last long, however; he was talented, but, by his own estimation, not talented enough (or perhaps driven or confident or persistent or exploratory enough); in any case, his writing didn’t take off, and he gave it up. He had taken snapshots in France, and, almost by accident, he took up the camera again, making abstract pictures of New York street scenes and portraits of his friends. ‘Oh yes,’ he said years later of these beginnings, ‘I was a passionate photographer, and for a while somewhat guiltily, because I thought that this is a substitute for something else – well, for writing, for one thing.’

I suspect that Evans always saw the camera as a poor cousin to the pen. In fact, it was perfect for him temperamentally and aesthetically. He loved contained, miniature, controllable worlds – books, maps, postcards (he had amassed a collection of nine thousand by the end of his life) – and he was solitary and reflective by nature. Much has been made of his reading habits and the effect they had on the content of his photographic work. He himself cited the unconscious influences of Baudelaire and, especially, of Flaubert – ‘both his realism or naturalism, and his objectivity of treatment. The nonappearance of the author, the nonsubjectivity.’ ‘I used to try to figure out precisely what I was seeing all the time, until I discovered I didn’t need to,’ he once said. ‘If the thing is there, why, there it is.’ I’m inclined to take him at his word; he was secure in his visual judgment from the beginning. Mellow quarrels with Evans’s assertion of the Flaubertian influence, since there is no ‘evidence’ – no references in diaries or letters or lists or translations – but this seems absurd. When one reads ‘pathologically’, as Evans (and others) described his lifelong practice, the influences build up seamlessly, one on top of the other.

Having returned to New York in 1926, Evans made up for the time he had lost socially in Paris, both places seeming today, in their scale and human accessibility, more like Midwestern cities than great cosmopolises. He took a job as a night clerk on Wall Street, which freed him to roam the city with his camera during the day, and moved to Brooklyn Heights, where he crossed paths with the poet Hart Crane, who happened to be living on the same block. The alcoholic, histrionic Crane was a terror as a friend, especially to someone like Evans, who abhorred scenes of any kind, but he knew people and threw parties that broadened Evans’s horizons; and, eventually, he asked Evans to contribute his photographs of the Brooklyn Bridge to Harry and Caresse Crosby’s edition of The Bridge. With apparent casualness – the same casualness that got him into Williams – Evans went on to meet just about anyone in the art and literary worlds who it was or would be worth his while to know, among them the impresario Alfred Stieglitz, to whom he took an immediate and intense dislike (he was careful to hide it), Berenice Abbott, who introduced him to the work of an obscure photographer she had discovered in Paris (Atget), Ralph Steiner, Paul Grotz, John Cheever, Ben Shahn and, most important of all, Lincoln Kirstein.

Evans always acknowledged the role luck played in his life, and nothing could have been luckier than the friendship he formed with Kirstein, whose influence on his career was so profound that one can’t help wondering where Evans might have ended up had their paths never crossed. They met around 1930, when the two began frequenting the salons of Muriel Draper. Both Draper and Kirstein (along with countless others apparently, male and female) developed crushes on him. Draper remarked on ‘the very subtle and powerful influence’ that he ‘exerted on all of us, mainly in the mysterious quality that he projected – did he know his power or not?’ It seems likely that the vain and calculating Evans understood it quite well, but that he found it expedient to maintain the inscrutability of ‘a Coptic head, or an Etruscan vase’, as Draper drolly described him.

Kirstein’s diaries contain tantalising observations of Evans: ‘He hates to sell his photographs or leave them places where they might be seen, copied, or have ideas stolen from him. It’s all part of his disappointing fear of getting tired easily. Perhaps he actually doesn’t get enough to eat and his vitality is actually low, but I told him I thought he submitted too easily to his terrors.’ The truth is that Evans was vulnerable, both mentally and physically. He was hospitalised in 1928 for unknown reasons and for an unknown period of time, then later for an ‘appendisodomy’, as he called it, and later still for a perforated ulcer, and twice again for alcoholism and attendant psychiatric problems.

Kirstein, who came from a wealthy Boston family with an interest in the arts, had started the avant-garde journal the Hound and Horn, modelled on the Criterion, while he was still at Harvard and he invited Evans to write for it and to contribute photographs. He also suggested that Evans take photographs of Victorian architecture for an exhibition he was thinking of mounting at the Harvard Society for Contemporary Art. The photographs are central to Evans’s first book, American Photographs, for which Kirstein wrote the introduction. Kirstein recommended him to his wealthy friend Gifford Cochran, who commissioned Evans to photograph Greek Revival plantation homes. And he introduced him to his Harvard classmate Tom Mabry, who gave Evans his first New York show, and to Alfred Barr, who had been Kirstein’s tutor at Harvard and became the Museum of Modern Art’s first director, in 1929. (‘Barr so nice and so confused. Quite a useless man, I’d say; though a sweet one,’ Evans noted in his diary.)

It wasn’t long before Evans began making a living as a working photographer, something of a contradiction at the time. It hasn’t gone unnoticed that in the whole of his fifty-year career, virtually all of his work was made on assignment, but it is easy to overlook the low regard in which photography was generally held when he started out, how limited its uses, and how scarce money was during the Depression. But the right kinds of assignment could become opportunities for self-expression, as Evans soon realised. Between 1931 and 1935, he accepted assignments that took him to Tahiti, Cuba and Florida, as well as New England and the plantation South. And Mabry, who had gone on to become a curator at the Modern, put him to work photographing an exhibition of African art.

Without question, though, Evans got the most significant assignment of his career from the Roosevelt Administration, after he was introduced to Roy Stryker, who had just been made the head of the Division of Information of the Department of Agriculture’s Resettlement Administration (later renamed the Farm Security Administration). Stryker’s office was compiling a record of the effects of the devastation wrought by the Depression. Beginning in the fall of 1935, Evans was paid to roam up and down the Eastern seaboard for 18 months, photographing whatever he wanted to. He was required to document specific subject matter, and did so, but this didn’t prevent him from including material of his own choosing. Later in life, he bristled at the suggestion that he was in any way directed by Stryker, for whom he felt, as he did for all his bosses, something just shy of contempt. He claimed that he ‘didn’t give a damn about the office in Washington – or about the New Deal really’, though he cherished the ‘subsidised freedom’. Nevertheless, the Division of Information was a government agency; its aims were not just documentary but propagandistic, something Evans obviously recognised and did his utmost to avoid. (‘Mean never to make photographic statements for the Government or do photographic chores for gov or anyone in gov, no matter how powerful,’ he wrote in a draft memorandum before accepting the job. ‘NO POLITICS whatever.’) But, in order to gain support for the Government’s programmes, it was the Division’s policy to provide photographs to institutions (including museums), book publishers, and major magazines and newspapers, including not just the New York Times and Time and Life but also the new Fortune, a magazine designed for wealthy businessmen.

In the summer of 1936, James Agee, then a staff writer for Fortune, was asked to write an article about the plight of Southern sharecroppers – the people who had been hardest hit by the Depression. It was to run as a part of a series called ‘Life and Circumstances’. The assignment had an added appeal: Agee would not be obliged to work with Margaret Bourke-White, Fortune’s staff photographer, whose work he scorned. He wanted Evans, a photographer he knew and admired. The FSA agreed to lend Evans for the project, but retained its rights to whatever pictures he produced.

Travelling the backroads of Alabama in search of subjects later that summer, Evans and Agee stopped one afternoon in Greensboro, the county seat of desperately poor, drought-stricken Hale County. Evans struck up a conversation with a tenant farmer named Frank Tingle. Tingle in turn introduced Evans and Agee to his brother-in-law Bud Woods, and to Bud Woods’s son-in-law Floyd Burroughs. Evans and Agee had found their subjects. The men all drove back to Tingle’s house, and Evans quietly set to work, photographing Tingle’s family, his older children, two girls, as they were drying their hair, which had been washed by the rain, against a backdrop of astonishing squalor. Agee later wrote almost hysterically of the Tingles: ‘The laundry is almost never done, and beyond their faces and hands the people, and their clothing and bedding, and their pans and dishes, and their house, are generally by standards other than their own insanely or completely dirty, or almost beyond possibility of being dirtier, short of a deliberated or cult-like acquisition of dirtiness.’ Temperamentally Agee’s opposite, Evans later said simply: ‘I didn’t identify myself subjectively nearly as much as Agee did. I was working objectively, on the visual material in front of me, which was incredibly rich.’

Though Evans insisted that his photographs were not illustrative of Agee’s text, it’s impossible not to flip to the pictures at the front as Agee begins describing, say, the mantel in the Burroughs’s bedroom, to make sure he’s got it right, and to try to read the pictures more deeply: ‘Pinned all along the edge of this mantel, a broad fringe of white tissue pattern-paper which Mrs [Burroughs] folded many times on itself and scissored into pierced geometrics of lace, and of which she speaks as her last effort to make this house pretty.’ The element of effort is implied in Evans’s photograph by the mere presence of the object itself; its pathos and its beauty deriving from the fact that it’s a stand-in for the real thing. But we can’t help looking at the photograph differently, now that Agee has singled out Mrs Burroughs’s effort to transcend the awful facts of her life. When we learn more about how the families live, their hardships, the amount of money they get by on (‘a family of six lives on ten dollars a month rations money during four months of the year. He has lived on eight, and on six’) that effort begins to seem laughable.

The effect of the photographs on their own is different. Lionel Trilling, in his review of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, applauded Evans’s ‘perfect taste, taking that word in its largest possible sense to mean tact, delicacy, justness of feeling, complete awareness and perfect respect’, and forgave Agee the hyperbolic excess he has so often been criticised for, on the grounds of the book’s overriding moral importance: Agee had no choice but to conceive of his task as an inevitable failure, Trilling claimed, ‘for failure alone can express the inexpressibleness of his matter’ (this was Agee’s own view). Trilling (and Agee) may have been right. But perhaps the opening pages, though touted as experimental, are actually closer to an extrapolation of Catholic ritual – the self-examination and confession of sin before Holy Communion (Agee was a Catholic). For he knows that he must betray his subjects. Evans had no such qualms. Years later, he said, with typical understatement: ‘I suppose I was interested in calling attention to something, even shocking people. But I don’t think I had the purpose of improving the world thereby . . . I like saying what’s what.’

Once Agee’s prose begins to relax, and he begins to render the lives of his subjects, the text achieves a kind of equilibrium with Evans’s photographs, and you understand how every miserable circumstance in the lives of his subjects conspires to blunt their consciousness, and, with it ‘pleasure, and joy and love’, as Agee writes. ‘And a human being who is deprived of these and of this consciousness is deprived almost of existence itself.’ But Evans’s photographs allow for something else; he registers not the horror or the tragedy of their existence, but the facts. And this does not preclude Allie Mae Burroughs’s consciousness of those facts. If it’s there, why, there it is.

In the 1980 documentary Agee, an old woman wearing an immaculate powder-blue trouser suit stands before the rear of a trailer in a mobile-home park, her arms at her sides. Like a child who’s been instructed to stand stock still, she makes the attempt, but you observe her swallowing, and see her eyes move from side to side, as though her thoughts have gone elsewhere. The woman is Allie Mae Burroughs. Her hair is short and coiffed and shot through with grey, her face expressionless and now unrecognisable. She is heavier; she must be around seventy. You hear her speak in voiceover, with surprising sweetness and sprightliness. ‘The big people,’ she says, looking back to the time of Evans and Agee,

You know – the big bugs around Moundville – these folks – they would tell us that they was from Russia and they was trying to get all they could out of the United States – you know. I don’t know what spies does, dear, but, anyway, we knowed they wasn’t going to hurt us. No way. And they didn’t.

I fixed their breakfast ever morning and they ate supper with us ever night . . . And they was just like us; they was just common people . . . I don’t care what they done with the books and things. If they got rich off it, it’s all right with me. It was the truth.

And then: ‘Tell you the truth, dear, when they left here I hated to see ‘em go. I coulda cried if it woulda done any good. Cause I got attached to ‘em.’

Evans and Agee submitted their work to Fortune late that fall, but the magazine declined to publish it. The view of Dwight Macdonald, then a disaffected former Fortune employee, was that the piece didn’t fit into the Fortune mould; it was ‘pessimistic, unconstructive, impractical, indignant, lyrical and always personal’. Evans and Agee decided to take it to a publisher, but when the book finally came out, in 1941, the Depression was over and the country was at war; it sold six hundred copies. In the meantime, a few months after Evans’s return to New York, Stryker fired him; no cause was given, but it’s easy to surmise a few; out of seventy thousand negatives in the FSA archive, only a few hundred were Evans’s; despite the quality of his work, which Stryker was quick to recognise and to use for his own purposes, Evans’s rate of production and his delinquency had been continual problems.

But in another remarkable demonstration of Evans’s luck, his old friends Kirstein and Mabry came up with the idea of mounting an exhibition of his work in the temporary quarters of the Modern, while its permanent space was being constructed. The timing could not have been more opportune; arrangements were settled within months for both an exhibition and a book, American Photographs. Ansel Adams, who had expected to be the first photographer shown by the Modern, was bitterly disappointed. In a letter to Georgia O’Keeffe, the wife of Stieglitz, he wrote: ‘I think the book is atrocious. But not Evans’s work in the true sense . . . It’s the putting of it all in a book of that kind – mixed social meanings, documentation, aesthetics, sophistication (emotional slumming), etc.’ To Edward Weston, he wrote: ‘Your shells will be remembered long after Evans’s picture of two destitutes in a doorway.’ Both the exhibition and the book received a handful of negative reviews, some from disgruntled FSA photographers, but Evans was launched.

His next, and final, significant project was the series of subway photographs, one of the only projects he initiated himself. He worked with the assistance of Helen Levitt, who went on to make a series of subway photographs of her own. But fearing lawsuits, he didn’t publish his pictures for thirty years. (This in itself is telling, given their innocuousness.) Evans had dedicated American Photographs to J.S.N., or Jane Smith Ninas, an artist who was married and whom he had met on one of his trips to the South and begun a serious affair with. Eventually, she left her husband, and the two married. Evans received a Guggenheim in 1940, but after his marriage and after his subway series, he photographed less and less. Money was always in short supply, for one thing. Ninas said that Evans was forever having to pawn one of his cameras so that they could eat. When he was offered a job as a wartime art and movie reviewer for Time, he took it. Perhaps it was the lure of financial security, or the responsibility he felt towards providing for his new wife, or perhaps he wanted to prove that he could be a writer after all, but for the first photographer to have been given a one-man exhibition at MoMA, the decision seems astonishing. Nevertheless, Evans seemed to have enjoyed the work, and if he missed photography, he made no attempt to do more of it. He made new friends, began socialising with the Partisan Review crowd, and eventually became a member of the Century Association, the club of private clubs in New York. Many have commented on Evans’s sense of humour, his charm, his social curiosity. ‘He wanted to know things,’ James Stephenson, an acquaintance in his later life, told me. ‘He was a bit roguish; not scoundrelly, but roguish. When he was in his early fifties, he took up with a young girl who was in her early teens.’ After the Time stint was up, and Evans was offered the chance essentially to write his own job description at Fortune, he took that, too, and stayed for twenty years.

But for all its alleged independence, the Fortune job couldn’t remotely compare with the one Evans had had with the FSA. There can be little question that he fell prey to the anaesthetisation and conformity of corporate culture. He made some beautiful pictures for the magazine, but very few. Something had got lost, and it’s hard to say how it happened: largely, it was the nature of the job itself; it’s easy to wander into an invisible prison. But, along with financial terror, there may also have been considerations of health, fatigue, boredom, age, dread, anger. His most beautiful photographs were fleeting images taken on train trips along the Eastern seaboard. The portfolio was entitled ‘Along the Right of Way’; you can imagine Evans, standing between the cars, the train speeding along, time passing with the landscape. It might have been the railroad through Kenilworth.

In 1955, Agee, who over the years had become his best friend, died suddenly, and Evans’s marriage also fell apart. Though Evans had a distinguished history of promiscuity, it was his wife who left him. The same year, he assisted the photographer Robert Frank in getting a Guggenheim, the proceeds of which Frank used to make his own masterwork, The Americans, which not only self-consciously built on Evans’s book, but in some ways, which Evans surely recognised, surpassed it. Diane Arbus, another photographer he championed, also rose to prominence. Joseph Mitchell once told me that Evans, at a certain point, ‘couldn’t see things anymore. Diane Arbus came along, and she could see things.’ While photographers for whom he had been a direct inspiration began to be recognised, he himself began to recede. He drifted into a depression and began to drink in earnest; a few years after his divorce, he married a beautiful Swiss woman thirty years his junior. That marriage, too, failed. And then came the hospitalisations.

But with the 1971 MoMA retrospective, suddenly Evans’s life changed once more. It gave him the opportunity to be an artist again. He had been released from his cage at Fortune by the offer of the teaching position at Yale. Soon afterwards, as the prices of his photographs began to climb, he sold off his entire cache of negatives for what is a pitiful sum today but was then, to him, a fortune. At Yale, he was surrounded by young people, who rejoiced at the opportunity to learn from him, and to care for him. After an operation in which most of his stomach was removed and from which he nearly died, he was nursed by a coterie of devotees, who assumed the role of the children he never had. Afterwards, fearful that he would frighten people with his gaunt face, he grew a Whitmanesque beard and referred to himself as a ‘lean Santa Claus’. He crammed his house in Connecticut with old advertising signs of the sort he had photographed in his youth and with bottle caps and debris. He bought a Polaroid camera, and when the company learned of this it provided him with an endless supply of free film. He took thousands of photographs, some of them collected in a book, Walker Evans: Polaroids. The pictures are astonishing in their reference to his earlier work, as though he had been his own greatest influence; ‘Kitchen Utensils, December 26, 1973’, is one example, a counterpart to his 1936 photograph of the Fields’ cabin, with the family’s cutlery lined up on the wall.

Among the last photographs of Evans was one taken on 8 April 1975. He had been invited to conduct a seminar at Radcliffe, then still an all-female college, and though he was terribly frail, he made the trip. In a suit newly made for the occasion, he delivered his lecture, which proved a great success. He returned home on the train alone the next day, and died of a stroke the following morning, a stoic Baudelairean dandy to the end.