Commentary Magazine


American Photographs, by Walker Evans

Things of this World

American Photographs.
by Walker Evans.
Museum of Modern Art (distributed by Doubleday). 195 pp. $7.50.

This book, a reissue of the original edition of 1938, contains 87 photographs taken in the years 1929 to 1937. They record faces, towns, streets, houses, interiors, fields, and signs, mostly in the South and in New York City, but also in New England, New York State, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey; two were taken in Havana, presumably made when Evans was in Cuba taking the photographs for Carleton Beals’s The Crime of Cuba (1933). The locale of thirteen of the photographs is not given; two of these are of minstrel show posters of a kind which were by then pretty well localized in the South; eleven are American shards of the sort that could turn up anywhere in the country: “Main Street Faces, 1935”; “American Legionnaire, 1936.” The volume also retains an unnecessary but harmless essay by Lincoln Kirstein on photography in general and Evans in particular.

Thirty-six of the American Photographs were taken in 1935-37 for the Farm Security Administration (or its predecessor). Three of these and one other were taken in 1936 when Evans was in the South with James Agee, collecting the material out of which they made Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941). The photographs in that book serve as stem reminders of the irreducible brute facts about which Agee’s prose describes its impassioned, and sometimes purple, arabesques. Evans has not published another book. Since the war he has worked for Fortune, of which he has for the last several years been an associate editor, and he has published his photographs almost entirely in that magazine. On the evidence of these frequently good but always lesser photographs, especially some of old resort buildings (“Summer North of Boston,” published in the issue of August 1949), it seems clear that the body of documentary photographs of American architecture which he has made but not yet gathered in a comprehensive volume is quite important.

Of the photographers employed by the FSA to document the plight of the farmers and farm laborers during the Depression, by far the most illustrious are Evans and Dorothea Lange. Both of them seemed to have been stimulated more by their FSA assignments to make excellent pictures in considerable number than by anything before or since; at least they owe both their most celebrated pictures to that stimulus and also their books. (Lange’s 33 photographs in MacLeish’s Land of the Free of 1938, out of a total of 88, and those in her own book, An American Exodus of 1939, were taken for the FSA.) Evans and Lange remain the two foremost American documentary photographers.

The nature of Evans’s book can perhaps best be suggested by first “placing” documentary photography as distinguished from other sorts. The art of photography can be roughly divided into two categories, the compositional and the referential. Compositional photography depends for its effect upon the lines, shapes, and gradations of shade (and occasionally of color) on the paper in front of the viewer and very little or not at all upon the subject of the photograph. Two eminent artists of this sort are Edward Weston and Ansel Adams. Weston took a well-known picture of a nude which will illustrate the point. The viewer of the picture cares almost nothing for the actual woman who posed for the photograph, though her body and limbs are evidently smooth, full-fleshed, and well-proportioned. At first glance he is not even sure the subject is a woman, for her arms and legs are so involved among themselves and so contained within the single outline of the image—not an outline familiar in life—as to suggest nothing in ordinary experience. He does not see her face, for her head is bent towards the camera. She is not located; that is, there is no background. The composition that Weston arranged and then registered in two dimensions on his film has far less in common with any actual woman, including the model herself, than with certain other compositions which Weston arranged and photographed using for his subject a shell, a green pepper, or a bare toilet bowl seen prow-on from a vantage point just above floor level.

Referential photography, by far the more popular, is that sort which depends for its effect primarily (though never entirely) upon its fidelity to the visual impression which the subject might have made on the viewer if he had seen it plain. The forms on the page in front of him are intended to be recognizable and the image is supposed to be true to what was actually there. Portraits are of this sort, and the success of portrait photography is demonstrated by its having almost entirely supplanted portrait painting during the past century. What a good photographer can do as well as the greatest painter is to give the viewer an image which can allow him to imagine the actual person portrayed. Though this representational power is not the whole of any work of visual art, neither is it as unimportant as current theory and practice in painting suggest. It seems to me a Laputan state of affairs that nowadays referential photography can be scorned aesthetically because it is about actual life and that non-representational painting can be highly regarded because it is about nothing outside itself.

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The term “documentary” is commonly applied to that sort of referential photography which is intended to show ordinary people and their artifacts in their customary surroundings. An admirable example from American Photographs is “Child in Back Yard, 1932.” We see a ragamuffin’s head and the upper half of her body. She is standing against an old shed, of which we see two boards with a large gap between them. On the board to the left, just behind her, there happens to be a hinge, out of focus. On the board to the right there is, in focus, a child’s crude sketch of a girl, suggesting a certain modishness of hair and dress, a Monkey Ward catalogue modishness. The actual little girl, freckled, hair disarrayed, dress ragged at sleeve and neck, is glancing slyly to her left, and from the expression on her wide, thin, stained lips one suspects that she is contemplating lively mischief. The photograph is as little about social injustice as is Tom Sawyer, but it would be called documentary partly because it is in a book of pictures of such intent but mostly because we are given, both in the title and in the picture itself, the sort of circumstantial details about the girl which comment on her sociologically, or, more accurately, which could be thought of as commenting on her sociologically. Moreover, in this picture Evans has been successful, as he nearly always is, in the special craft of referential photography, a craft never more important than in documentary work: he gives the illusion that this is what the viewer would have seen had he been there and looked for himself. Documentary photography, like realism in fiction, is a servant art: it aims to create in the viewer the naive illusion, “That’s what things are really like.” Just how illusory this naive impression is, every thick-thumbed amateur knows who has tried to take such photographs and every viewer knows who, after looking at a book such as this, goes around seeing some of the things of the world with fresh eyes for a while.

The immediate social aim of the documentary photography of the 30’s was to inform the country at large about the plight of the poor. But much of it also had a less laudable aim, because of which a certain odium clings to the term “documentary.” Much of that photography, like much social protest writing, belongs to the sort of propagandistic art which leads neither to understanding nor to action but to a stagnant emotion, in this case guilt, shame, outrage, indignation. Indignation, even at real and gross injustice, is not inexhaustible aesthetically as it can be morally, and “the victim” is one of realistic art’s riskiest subjects just because it so easily leads to simple, stagnant, sympathizing. The issue is confused when it is the poor whom a work of art asks us to feel sorry for, and only feel sorry for; but it is clear how bad a work of art can be which asks us to just feel sorry for, not really to understand, the rich: Last Year at Marienbad. It is instructive to observe how the two chief documentary photographers of the poor, Lange and Evans, succeed in doing their job. In their best pictures, they inform the viewer accurately and effectively about certain social conditions, but in every case they also do something more, something not so tied to time and place. It is precisely because they do this something more that that time and that place have endured in their images.

Most of Lange’s pictures are of people, and usually the center of interest is a face expressing troubled emotion. Her temptation is to sentimentalize these subjects about whom her feelings are so warm. But in her frequent successes she redeems these pictures from sentimentality by the honesty and the clarity of her seeing. Her vision leads to our warm understanding. The eighth picture in Land of the Free, “Pea-pickers in California,” centers on a manifestly decent woman whose face is ravaged by immediate worry; her right hand plucks at her cheek, pulling down the right corner of her mouth, which looks as though it wants to be humorous. She is poor, and we assume that her poverty and the uncertainty of the future cause her worry. But the viewer is less concerned with her poverty as such, and far, far less with feeling guilty about the social conditions that imposed poverty upon her, than he is with understanding the profounder, the humanly universal, results of that poverty. For the picture is a sort of anti-Madonna and Child. One sees the backs of two children’s heads, one pressed to each of her shoulders, and down in the lower left corner of the picture one sees on her lap part of a sleeping, dirty baby; but the mother, who, we feel without reservation, wants to love and cherish her children, is severed from them by her anxiety even as they lean on her. The second picture in the book, of a “Missouri farmer now a migratory farm laborer in California” crouched at the wheel of a Model-T Ford, is rescued from the too simple, too easy feelings which the spectacle of a trapped victim inspires, by the eyes; they gleam from that weak, fearful, narrow, pitiable face as mindless and heartless as a weasel’s.

Evans is not in the least tempted by an excess of sympathy for his subjects. Indeed, more than half the pictures in American Photographs have no people in them, and nearly all those in which a face is the central or dominant image are unmistakably of people conscious of “having their picture taken.” If they appear sullen, suspicious, truculent, resentful, like the two young men in “Main Street Faces, 1935,” or worldly overwise and weary like the befurred woman in “42nd St., 1929,” that is because they want to appear so or do not mind appearing so, not because they were caught at it. One never feels with Evans, as one frequently does with Weegee, that he is keyhole-peeping or outright invading people’s privacy. Moreover, Evans’s photographic technique mitigates against much sympathizing on the viewer’s part. He commonly stands in the middle distance from his subject, the snapshot distance; one is seldom aware of effects of light or shadow; it seems always to be a bright, lightly overcast day; he shoots from no special-effects angle; he usually stands square in front of a house or detail of a house; he does not tamper with his negatives. The result of all this is a severe honesty.

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Evans’s temptation is toward a perverse delight in the hideous. Sometimes this leads him to a certain obviousness. In “Houses and Billboards, Atlanta, 1936,” he takes a broadside shot of two long, low billboards advertising movies, one with a picture of dynamic Anne Shirley, the other of black-eyed Carole Lombard vamping you over her shoulder, the billboards plastered in front of and below two identical, squalid, and spectacularly ugly houses. Despite this propensity, Evans usually redeems his pictures. A few are plain beautiful. “Maine Pump, 1933” is an elegant image of a domestic detail which itself is elegant. Some are made complex by a comment which rescues them from the merely ugly or ordinary. “Wooden Gothic House, Massachusetts, 1930” is of a house which is neither handsome nor hideous nor so constructed as to make a compositionally strong picture; but referentially the photograph has the power to stick in the mind. The façade of the house has five Greek columns, of which the two to the left are obscured to our view by a tree; on the center column is a large “For Sale” sign, aesthetically as obtrusive in the picture as it was in actuality. We are in no way asked to sympathize with the owner because he needs money; we see an old house casually defaced; we see the past discarded. And, in the context of the whole book, we see this earlier failed attempt at elegance rejected by a present ugliness which does not even try to be anything else.

“The whole book”—it is this that constitutes Evans’s achievement. The photographs comment on one another. The whole is much greater than the parts added together as separate units. Learning the book, one appreciates how the “yowsa” darkies of the minstrel show posters play off against the lined, experienced face of the Negro coal-dock worker and the melancholy face of the young Arkansas flood refugee. After a while one gains a certain fondness for the curlicue eave decorations which appear on many of the pictured houses. One begins to imagine the view of things which produced, and is produced by, the stark, symmetrical rectangles of “Frame Houses in Virginia, 1936.”

Finally, despite its diversity and complexity, the book has a dominant tone, and despite the difference between Evans and Lange his tone is not far from hers. He is disengaged where she is unmistakably involved with her subjects; he turns more toward houses and she toward faces; he is sometimes perversely gleeful over ugliness and she sometimes sentimental over victims. Nevertheless both communicate a sort of nostalgia which one must respect, a sense of valuable things scorned, broken, corrupted, cheapened, thrown away, badly replaced, gone. An emblem for Evans’s book would be the photograph with which the first of its two sections concludes, “Louisiana Plantation House, 1935.” We are shown two sides of the mansion, each side fronted by square two-story pillars behind which there is a deep porch on both floors. There is no evidence that the house is occupied. There are many indications that it is physically deteriorating. In front of it, breaking up the building’s very handsome lines, an uprooted dead tree lies in the yard, dry moss hanging from some of its branches. We know well enough what social conditions produced the wealth to build this house originally and what social conditions were allowing it to decay in 1935. But the photographer does not ask us stagnantly to feel how dreadful slavery was or the Depression is. He assumes our understanding of these matters, and leads us to a new, felt understanding. The strong impression the picture leaves in the viewer’s mind is of a high thing fallen.

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