Entries tagged with “Atget” from this Public Address 1.0

Walker Evans, Pt. 10

When Walker Evans entered the circle of Muriel Draper in 1931, a new set of problems arose.

Walker Evans, Muriel Draper's apartment 1931

Walker Evans entree into the sophisticated world of the Draper salon brought with it certain hazards. He seems to have made a hit with a number of homosexual and bisexual men who regularly frequented Muriel’s evenings. Kirsten, in his diaries, routinely recorded the episodes he witnessed and those in which Muriel reported on the general assault against Evans’s masculine virtue.

There was a case of an aspiring young member of the American diplomatic corps, an intimate of Jean Cocteau’s, who, high on drugs, took Walker out for dinner “and horrified him by acting camp and taking dope which he got in Harlem and which he decided was half talcum-powder after all. He would scream at the rails of the elevated and tell them to stop. He made a pass at Walker and was generally difficult.”

On a different occasion another of Muriel’s young blades had been so attracted to Evans that when he finally took the plunge of asking him for lunch, he did it such a “transparently flirtatious and ass-humping” manner that he was no longer attracted. Muriel, bemused, commented on “the subtle and powerful influence that Walker Evans exerted on all of us, mainly the mysterious quality that he projected— did he know his power or not?”

Beyond the hints provided by James Mellow’s biographical retelling, it seems that there was a certain power that Evans gained through mystery— through careful control of context and presentation.

Evans effectively decontextualized the depression in America

Walker Evans, Pt. 9

Walker Evans, Truro, Mass, 1930Walker Evans in the De Luze cottage

Walker Evans visited Truro, Massachusetts, in 1930 and stayed in the home of a family named De Luze, rented by his friend Ben Shahn. In the cottage of this Portuguese fishing family, his mature vision really began to take shape.

Had a wonderful dream last night. Where in hell do all those details come from. Really, literature, all the greatest descriptions I know are so much watery smudge to the least of my dreams. I suppose the best about dreams is the abolition of time. After one like last night's I spend the day tasting the tail ends of lovely unearthly moods without a headache. I think my powers lie mostly there, in dreams.

Walker Evans, Letter to Hanns Skolle, May 13, 1930

Evans' photographs of the De Luze cottage mark a profound turning point in his career, not because they were particularly successful, but because they show Evans' deepening dream detail. Though interest in the mundane is common among modernists, it's the complexity of detail that sets Evans apart. These photographs are a bridge between densely formalist experiments, and later photographs which show both this richness of detail, and the compositional complexity of Evans' early work. Life is found in details.

Walker Evans, Pt. 8

Reaching Toward Critical Mass

Walker Evans, Billboard in the Bronx, 1929-30

Jonathon’s gesture towards an Walker Evans photograph reminded me about something I should have been doing. Last month, I started a sort of survey of the work of Walker Evans, but I stopped around 1930— the point where most critics begin.

I was leading toward something. But once again, before I get there, I've got to pause for a moment to share a few more of those 1929-30 gems, which most people probably have not seen.

Early focus on the nature of hypertext pointed at the “death of the author” somewhat tediously. I think that TV’s latest motion toward the role of pseudonyms in the 18th century is a more fruitful (and perhaps not as cliché as he thinks) way to think about what is going on regarding the web. Where Evans was going involved marching in lockstep with the early modernists into anonymity. But prior to 1930, he was still working in a rather assertive and playful mode, dancing on the edge of sentimental celebration before falling off the other side into something bright, shiny, and hard.

So, I suppose I’ll dive back in again with a bit of a recap, and some new images. What keeps drawing me back to these photographs is their humor. I never seem to tire of looking at them. Though sometimes Evans is easily placed into his milieu, often, he dances precariously just beyond the edge of the “high seriousness” of modernity.

Eventually, Evans left the bright lights and big city.

Walker Evans, Pt. 4

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Bernice Abbott was a lesbian.

Bernice Abbott, photograph by Walker Evans, 1929

I didn't know that until a few days ago. Seems like I've got lots of people to rethink, perhaps a bit, as I enter that course in queer theory in the fall. We shall see. I don't like dividing people by their sexual preference.

As with Hart Crane, I don't think her sexuality really factors much into her art. Her project of documenting New York in the 30s, Changing New York, owes much more to her deep friendship with Eugene Atget than it does to her apprenticeship under Man Ray. And there is little doubt that she is the one who introduced Walker Evans to this anomalous figure in the history of photography.

Atget is from a different age, an age where photographers coated their own plates, and were part magician and part showman. He began life as an actor, but when he entered the profession of photography he presented it as an entirely practical form. He hung a sign on his studio which said, “Documents for Artists.” His project was to document a changing Paris, around the turn of the century, before those last vestiges of the nineteenth century faded away. But his photographs are nothing if not artistic. Atget's art comes not from the evocation of a singular vision, but a multiple one. I think that Walker Evans said it best.

He knew where to stand.

Color Discord


The later Victorian poets paved the way for the triumph of the symbol, pushed to its limits into the symbol-mongering of high Modernism. While it is fun stuff, when the symbol becomes a cipher, a stand-in for real experience, I have to draw the line. Yeats is unique to me in that respect, because he danced upon the edge of mythos and symbol. When you fall off the edge, art becomes math.

Continuing to meditate on color today, I stepped back into the symbolist den. Some of the systems that evolved were compelling. I revisited Wassily Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art. In the translator’s preface to the Dover edition, Michael Sadler relates that in genealogical terms, Kandinsky is seen as the heir to Gaugin, while Picasso is heir to Cézanne.

The distinction, as Sadler sees it, is the distinction between the realist and the symbolist. The forgone conclusion is that “realists” cannot be spiritual, and unless a case is made for Cézanne as a religious painter, Picasso cannot stand with Kandinsky as a “prophet of an art of spiritual harmony.” I don’t think that he would want to be grouped with those in search of harmony. Picasso’s universe is dynamic and full of unrest; I find it more “human” and closer to the world as I know it. Mystics are in constant search for a system. Kandinsky saw color as a field to build such a system.

At the outset, he recognizes the futility cataloguing the effects of color:

There are many examples of color working that refuse to be classified. A Dresden doctor relates of one of his patients, whom he designates as “an exceptionally sensitive person,” that could not eat of a certain sauce without tasting “blue,” i.e. without experiencing a feeling of seeing a blue color. It would be possible to suggest, by way of explanation of this, that in highly sensitive people, the way to the soul is so direct and the soul so impressionable, that any impression of taste communicates immediately to the soul, and thence to the other organs of sense (in this case the eyes). This would imply an echo or reverberation, such as occurs sometimes in musical instruments which, without being touched, sound in harmony with some other instrument struck at the moment.

I spent a short period of time playing with color photography. I was always overcome by blue. The distinction between shades was never right, and the film just collapsed the melody that I saw with my eyes. I just gave up on the whole idea. I could train my brain to process what would happen when I recorded something on black and white film, but color film never resonated with the colors I felt in my mind. Perhaps there was just too much feedback going on, reducing everything to a fuzz-tone. I wanted to be true to the blues, and I found it best to do that in black and white.

I like Kandinsky’s concept of color as movement, which he expressed it in a Yeats-like diagram:

As is the case with most of these things, it starts from antitheses. Kandinsky and Yeats both saw absolute white and absolute black as discord. There is concord in their opposition of subjective and objective. There is a similar spinning motion involved. However, Kandinsky sets the motion of blue in an inward direction, concentric, as compared to the external, or ex-centric motion of yellow. Kandinsky cuts to the core of color as both a centrifugal and centripetal force.

Kandinsky also treats color rhetorically, as an "appeal" to either a spectator, or to an internal spiritual state. His distinction heralds a higher version of Modernism and its notion of the value of rhetoric. Yeats described the process of persuasion in typically pithy fashion: "A rhetorician writes to convince others. A poet writes to convince himself." In Kandinsky's version, the self is absent. It has been replaced by an abstract spirit, for Kandinsky claims that art should reach to a higher purpose than just the revelation or assertion of self. Like Eliot, Kandinsky seems to propose that in the grand scheme of art, self is unimportant. It's the spirit that counts.

Of course, there is a spectrum of colors and states involved in Kandinsky’s model of color:

It seems poetic that red would be motion within itself, while green would be spiritually extinguished and motionless. Color takes care of itself, as far as I’m concerned. Yeah, I see in color. But I just can’t deal with it as an artist. Maybe I'm just too sensitive to it.

Harmony in perfect proportion is gray; there is no motion. Photography is an attempt to fix things. It seems only natural that it would arise from discord on either side, and result in a gray lack of motion. At least in the case of black and white still photography.

Anything else is not nearly as “spiritual,” at least in my opinion.

But on the other hand, I’m not a symbolist. I’m more of a realist, and while these systems are fun, I’ve got little use for them past intellectual curiosity. I feel spiritually closer to Picasso than I do Kandinsky. Life is more fun when it's de-ciphered. However, Kandinsky's view of color is incredibly seductive:

Generally speaking, colour is a power which directly influences the soul. Colour is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand which plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul.

It is evident therefore that colour harmony must rest only on a corresponding vibration in the human soul; and this is one of the guiding principles of the inner need.

People are always looking for good vibrations. Color and music can provide them, but I'm not so sure that's what photography is all about. I suppose I tend to think of photographs as artifacts and curios, "documents for artists," as Atget billed them. They are objects of desire rather than saviours of the soul, I suppose, forever connected to the desiring machine.