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|Walker Evans: Photographer
by Hilton Kramer
|It has long been recognized that Walker Evans was the preeminent photographer of his generation in America. What is less often acknowledged is that he was also one of the emblematic figures in the art and culture of his period. For it was Walker Evans's eye -- and the particular sensibility that governed it -- that signaled a decisive shift from the high-art estheticism of Alfred Stieglitz in the initial phase of American modernism at the turn of the century to something quite different a generation later; an acutely lucid, disabused photographic style that placed its trust in an unembellished, highly concentrated look at the given realities of American life. Evans was by no means alone in effecting this radical revision in the way we observe the objects and environments of modern experience, but his was the most incisive contribution to the art that resulted from it, an art that changed the very conception of what a photograph might be. In this respect, he was one of the principal artists who redrew the map of American visual culture in this century, and thus permanently altered the way we see ourselves and the world we inhabit.
Born in 1903, Evans belonged to the same generation as literary talents as diverse as W.H. Auden, George Orwell, and James Agee, with all of whom his outlook on art and life had something in common. It was a generation that had been spared the horrors of the First World War -- this was what separated it from the so-called Lost Generation of Hemingway, Dos Passos, and ee cummings -- and it came of age instead in the heady excitements of the 1920s. However, it was by the shocks and conflicts of the depression era and the Second World War that this generation was most decisively formed. It was especially the period that Auden looked back on in his poem, "September 1, 1939" as a "low, dishonest decade," that prompted the artists and writers of his and Evans's generation to place a radically accessible candor at the center of their creative endeavors.
This inevitably put them in a critical relation to the first great wave of 20th-century modernism in the arts -- the achievement represented by Eliot and Joyce, Picasso and Matisse, and their many acolytes -- which was firmly in place when Evans's and his contemporaries arrived on the scene. That achievement could neither be ignored nor slavishly emulated if something truly of their own time, yet on a comparably exalted level of quality, was to be created. One of the crucial things that this break with early modernism entailed for Evans's generation was a rejection of his hermeticism in favor of more direct, even documentary forms of expression. It was in that interest that Auden collaborated on film documentaries and brought the landscape of industrial England into modernist English verse, and that Orwell wrote a classic prose documentary, the Road to Wigan Pier. A similar imperative led Evans to abandon his early ambition to be a writer in order to pursue a vocation in photography and collaborate with Agee on a documentary project like Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.
No one has described the implications of that vocation more succinctly than John Szarkowski, for many years the curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and himself a distinguished photographer. Writing in Looking at Photographs (1973), Szarkowski observed: "Evans's work seemed at first almost the antithesis of art. It was puritanically economical, precisely measured, frontal, unemotional, dryly textured, insistently factual, qualities that seemed more appropriate to a bookkeeper's ledger than to art. But in time it became clear that Evans's pictures however laconic in manner, were immensely rich in expressive content. His work constitutes a personal survey of the interior resources of the American tradition, a survey based on a sensibility that found poetry and complexity where most earlier travelers had found only drab statistics or fairy tales."
That the man who, by embarking upon this "personal survey," produced a seemingly impersonal art largely devoted to anonymous subjects, has himself remained something of an enigma, would come as no surprise to anyone who knew Walker Evans. An enigma was precisely what Evans the man wished to remain, preferring -- indeed insisting -- that the "poetry and complexity" which Szarkowski spoke of in his work speak for him. He was an enigma to many who were closest to him in his lifetime, and he clearly wished to preserve that enigmatic mask for posterity. The once-famous admonition of Andre Gide, who early on exerted a considerable influence on Evans -- "Don't understand me too quickly!" -- might very well have been his own.
Alas, he was anything but unique in this respect. It is often the case, after all, that artists and writers, in the course of their careers, do tend to become inordinately resistant to and suspicious of personal revelation. With others, this resistance takes the form of an impenetrable and protracted silence. With others, however -- and this was very much the case with Evans -- resistance takes a very different form. They talk, and talk a lot. This was certainly true of Walker when I knew him in the last years of his life. When the spirit was upon him, he was an inspired raconteur. But that, too, often proved to be a strategy of resistance to revelation. For the man himself remained concealed behind the constant flow of engaging anecdote, pointed observation and cavalier obiter dicta, which without being exactly untrue, was nonetheless designed to preserve a privacy as essential to his inner being as it was to the spirit of his art.
Walker once admitted as much to me -- though obliquely, of course -- in one of our many conversations. He was then teaching at the Yale School of Art, and while it was my impression that he greatly enjoyed his new role as a mentor to younger talents, his life was otherwise fairly problematic. His recent marriage -- his second -- was in trouble. His health was failing, and so was his resolve to stay on the wagon. And although a succession of exhibitions brought a chorus of praise from the critics, some of it written by myself in the New York Times, he no longer seemed capable of adding much to the classical oeuvre he had already created. He was clearly searching for new interests or a new project, something that might revive his faltering spirits.
Over lunch in New Haven one day, we got to talking about the memoirs that some of Walker's contemporaries had lately published. He professed not to have read any of these memoirs of the 1920s and '30s, but he plied me with questions about those I had read, eager to elicit whatever unfavorable criticisms I might make of them. I then suggested to Walker that he write a book of memoirs, and, to my astonishment, he seemed eager to give it some serious thought.
Some months passed before I received a call summoning me to lunch again in New Haven. Walker promptly announced that since our last lunch he had spent much of his time reading through as many of those memoirs as he could lay hands on. Then, with an air of triumph, he declared: "They're all lies! They're nothing but lies!" "Well," I replied, "that's all the more reason for you to write your memoirs." This irritated him greatly. "No, no." he said. "You don't understand. I would write lies, too. You can't write anything but lies about the past." I thought of all the entertaining stories Walker had recounted to me -- and to others -- over the years that I had known him, and realized in retrospect that they had always served him as a kind of plague to keep the ghosts of the past at bay.
It is not the least of James Mellow's achievements in this biography that he has brought so many of these ghosts to life again, and has often managed to do so in Evans's own words or in those who were closest to him in the most pivotal and dramatic years of his life. The Walker Evans that we encounter in this book is a figure that has never before been so accurately described, so sympathetically portrayed, or so delicately judged. Both the man and his work are fully rendered for the first time by a writer who was himself a master of biographical portraiture. There is nothing like this Life, either, in the literature of modern photography to match its account of Walker's working methods, and nothing that comes close to its absorbing description of the man himself.
Jim Mellow came to the subject of Walker Evans at an important juncture in his own life as a writer. The history of American modernism had been one of the principal concerns of his work since the publication of his first book, a biography called Charmed Circle: Gertrude Stein & Company (1974), a finalist for the National Book Award and now regarded as a classic. That book initiated a trilogy -- later completed with Invented Lives: F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (1984) and Hemingway: A Life Without Consequences (1992) -- devoted to the expatriate writers who set the standard for modern American prose in the period between the two world wars.
His second book -- Nathaniel Hawthorne in His Times (1980), which won the National Book Award -- was intended to be the first volume in a parallel series on 19th-century American prose writers. A life of Margaret Fuller, which was meant to be a counterpart to the Stein biography, had already been announced. But as often happens to writers who live by their pen, Jim was persuaded by his publisher to defer that project until the lives of Fitzgerald and Hemingway had been completed. By that time, however, he was offered the opportunity to write a life of Walker Evans, and he jumped at the chance. For this was a subject that would allow him to extend his account of American modernism into a later generation and expand its focus to the realm of pictorial art, which had long been another of Jim's professional interests.
As the editor of Arts Magazine in the early 1960s, and subsequently as a contributor to the Sunday art page of the New York Times, Jim had already published a good deal of art criticism when he turned his attention to the life and work of Walker Evans. Preferring to concentrate on his books, he had turned down an offer from the Times to join its staff as a full time art critic, but he continued to write the occasional article for the paper. That was how he came to have his one and only meeting with Walker -- an encounter that is vividly described in the prologue to his book.
It was precisely Jim's exceptional command of both literature and the pictorial arts in this century that made him an ideal chronicler of Walker's special genius, which was itself governed by an unusual combination of literary and visual interests. (In this connection, it is worth recalling that Walker also wrote a good deal of art criticism when he worked for Time magazine.) It was another advantage, of course, that Jim brought to this subject a comprehensive knowledge of the expatriate literary and artistic worlds in Europe in the 1920s and '30s, for it was in that milieu that Walker came to his vocation in photography from his apprenticeship as an aspiring author and translator. Exactly what Walker derived from his expatriate period and how it came to be applied to the work of his artistic maturity were therefore matters that Jim was uniquely qualified to deal with.
In much of Jim's writing -- but particularly in the Stein and Hemingway biographies -- one of the central themes is the role played by European culture and Europe itself in the development of an American artistic consciousness. It was in Paris, after all, and under the influence of Cubist painting where Stein effected her radical renovation of American prose, and Hemingway applied the lessons of that renovation in forging the style of his early stories of northern Michigan -- a style that set the pace of American prose for several generations thereafter. About the nuances and consequences of this cultural paradox, in which French precedents functioned as a catalyst in the production of what came to be regarded as the most influential American prose style of its time, Jim had established himself as a connoisseur before ever turning to the art of Walker Evans.
Owing to the distinctly American subject-matter of so many of Walker's best-known photographs -- and perhaps, too, to what many critics regard as his equally distinctive American response to his subjects -- the expatriate experience is not a theme commonly associated with Walker's work. Yet Jim's own experience in chronicling the lives of American expatriate writers gave him an uncommon appreciation of what Walker as an artist derived from his early immersion in French literature. This was a subject that Walker himself often spoke about in his later years, citing Flaubert and Baudelaire as the crucial influences. As a veteran biographer, however, Jim knew better than to rely on such retrospective testimony. When he conducted his own research into Walker's papers, the debt to Baudelaire was confirmed, but Jim found there was little evidence that he had read much of Flaubert. The writers he was drawn to early on in his expatriate period were Joris-Karl Huysmans, Rémy de Gourmont and Jean Cocteau, and those whose works he set himself the task of translating into English were André Gide, Blaise Cendrars and Raymond Radiguet. It was Gide's prose style that Walker especially esteemed, but the entire list suggests a closer acquaintance with the esthetic and moral interest of contemporary French literature than is usually supposed.
As for the particular qualities that Walker admired in Gide's prose, it needs to be remembered that it was its note of radical moral candor that made the author such a controversial figure in his day -- precisely the quality that is now so admired in Walker's best work. And in his research into Walker's translations, Jim was struck by something else that might have stirred Walker's interest. About a little-known memoir of Gide's called "Conversation with a German Some Years Before the War," which Walker translated in 1927, Jim writes: "one of the things that may have impressed Evans about the [memoir] is Gide's nearly photographic attention to finical and revealing detail -- 'He offered me a cigarette in the finest case I have ever seen. I admired too his match container, silver like the cigarette case. The smallest objects he had about him were of a somber and restrained elegance…"
It is in observations of this kind that Jim was able to limn the relation that obtained between Walker's French literary interests and the esthetic that subsequently governed his pictorial practice. No other has traced the course of that delicately negotiated shift from literature to photography with such a deep and detailed understanding of what it entailed for Walker, both esthetically and intellectually. For it was never a question, in his case, of repudiating the literary origins of his art. Literature, as we are frequently reminded in this book, remained one of Walker's abiding passions.
Yet is was one of the defining features of his photographic art that it was never conceived to be any sort of illustration of a literary idea or a literary subject. It was indeed the essence of Walker's modernism to separate photography from its literary subject-matter and allow it to achieve an esthetic autonomy of its own. Even in his most famous collaborative work -- Let Us Now Praise Famous Men -- Walker's pictures remained remarkably independent of James Agee's text in their utter detachment from the pathos of the social drama that is so eloquently evoked in the writing. What Walker contributed to the book wasn't illustration but a parallel succession of pictorial images that illuminated a moral landscape with a clarity and immediacy that are uniquely the province of photography.
In this respect, the influence of Baudelaire is certainly discernible in Walker's photographic style -- the influence, that is of Baudelaire the dandy, with his attitude of radical detachment from all he surveys, and of Baudelaire the flâneur, who selects objects of interest from his wanderings in the miscellany of the modern world without much regard for the status which received opinion has assigned to them. From this disabused Baudelariean perspective, a sharecropper's hovel or an unmade bed might prove to be quite as compelling, as a pictorial subject, as a Victorian mansion or a remarkable face. Everything would depend on the quality of the observer's esthetic response, while all hierarchies of privileged subject-matter were consigned to oblivion.
It was undoubtedly Walker's French connection, as it may be called, that enabled him to secure his artistic independence for the powerful influence of Alfred Stieglitz. About this milestone in the history of Walker's artistic development Jim Mellow also gives us the most complete account we have. Walker was deeply conflicted about Steiglitz, and often contradictory in his avowals and denials on the subject. Understandably so, perhaps, for it was no small task to get free of the master's formidable mystique even in the crisis atmosphere of the 1930s. Steiglitz was the lion in the path of all the photographic artists of Walker's generation. He had undeniably been the single greatest force in achieving a new artistic status for photography in America, yet the atmosphere of estheticism and mystagogy with which he surrounded his artistic mission was proving to be a handicap in dealing with the social realities of the Depression era. So was Stieglitz's condescending attitude toward America itself. He couldn't be ignored, yet he couldn't be emulated either. He had somehow to be overcome.
In the effort he made to secure his independence from the Steiglitz mystique, Walker had the good fortune of winning the support of an equally formidable but much younger visionary of the arts -- Lincoln Kirstein. About this crucial relationship, too, Jim writes with an authority no other writer has brought to the subject. Had he lived, Jim's chronicle of American modernism would have been expanded even further with the biography Kirstein he was planning to write after the completion of his life of Evans. It was in the course of his research for the present volume that Jim first met Kirstein, whose own role in Walker's life and work is so brilliantly recounted in this book. Kirstein -- poet, critic, historian, esthete, and impresario of the arts -- was a famously difficult personality, yet when Jim approached him in his quest for first-hand information about Walker's life and work, Kirstein responded with extraordinary enthusiasm. It turned out that Kirstein had read and admired Jim's life of Gertrude Stein, and, as a consequence, he not only placed his voluminous papers at Jim's disposal but invited him to write a life of Kirstein upon the completion of Walker's -- a proposal to which Jim readily agreed.
This was a project that interested Jim greatly, for Kirstein was, like Walker, one of the emblematic figures in the cultural life of our time. Known the world over today as the founder of the New York City Ballet -- who, by bringing George Balanchine to America in the 1930s, made New York the dance capital of the world -- Kirstein was also a connoisseur of photography, painting, sculpture and architecture. In the Hound and Horn, the literary journal he founded while still an undergraduate at Harvard in the late 1920s, Kirstein had published Walker's first writings on photography, and he was subsequently tireless in promoting Walker's own photographs during the period he served as curator at the Museum of Modern Art in the 1930s.
Had he lived to write it, Jim's biography of Kirstein would have carried his history of American modernism down to the present day. It was not to be, alas, and the time which Jim devoted to Kirstein in the last years of his life proved to be unexpectedly costly, for it delayed the completion of this book. When Jim died suddenly on November 23, 1997, he had not yet completed the closing chapter of Walker's life but fortunately for us all, what he has written, what you have before you, is both a landmark work on the life of Walker Evans as well as an extraordinary chronicle of the art of our time.
HILTON KRAMER is art critic for the New York Observer. This article is an excerpt from James R. Mellow's biography of Walker Evans, recently published by Basic Books.
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