Walker Evans was an enigmatic man.
His photographs scream “truth” with a capital T.
They’re not. Evans manipulated, arranged, and painstakingly controlled every aspect of his photographs. They were aesthetic objects, and yet he claimed they weren’t art.
He moved in the midst of high modernism, but it’s hard to call him a modernist. Genre labels are at best a ruse to hide complexity. I suspect that the tensions involved can be best explored by analogy. In Evan’s case, the poles operating in his work share much in common with the tension between T.S. Eliot and Hart Crane to a much greater degree than the poles he would probably choose himself, the difference between Flaubert and Baudelaire.
Evans also has a certain similarity with Percy Shelley. He was born into money, but not the “old money” of an aristocracy. Walker Evans I, his grandfather, worked his way up from a cashier to being a secretary at the Mound City Paint and Color Company in St. Louis Missouri. Walker Evans II, his father, was not a college graduate but had a native talent for writing which lead him into advertising. He was a very successful man, and following family tradition, when his son was born on November 2, 1903, he named him Walker as well.
But Walker Evans III, the photographer which I am occupied with here, changed the facts to suit himself. He claimed to be born on November 3, 1903, to match the numeral on the end of his name. Though his biographer Belinda Rathbone claims that it is unclear whether this was his idea or his family’s, it is certainly in keeping with his well wrought personal mythology. There is a certain forced symmetry to his work, and the loftiness of being part of a tradition. The opening of her biography states his case quite well:
“Privilege,” said Walker Evans late in his life, addressing a group of well-heeled college students, “is an immoral and unjust thing to have. But if you’ve got it, you didn’t choose to get it and you might as well use it.”
. . . He believed that artists like himself made up their own class and were due their own set of privileges. His demeanor, both superior and comfortably informal, and his cultured accent, punctuated here or there by a mumble or stutter, suggested to many that he was an aristocrat, though perhaps not a born one. “He liked to imply that he was very well bred,” explained a close friend. “I think he was rather a self-made well-bred man.”
Like Shelley, Evans was a college drop-out. Like Shelley, Evans was often connected with movements for social change. But the comparison ends there. While Shelley was comfortable with his position, Evans was embarrassed to a certain extent by his. He recalled with disdain the way his father earned a living, working on such things as the Aunt Jemima flour campaign with its smiling mammy. Where Shelley was engaged, Evans was detached. But it’s a peculiar sense of detachment, because his sense of passion rivaled Shelley’s. It was developed through a stint working at the New York Public Library in 1924, pouring through literature and the now classic modernist texts from Joyce and Eliot as quickly as they came off the press.
He traveled to Paris, and began his involvement with photography in 1926. I note these facts as a prequel to exploring his photography in depth, because the contexts of his development— from literature to photography, rather than the other way around, is important to situating him in his milieu. He claimed Flaubert as his primary influence, as a realist, though he had great affection for Baudelaire as well. However, his disassociation, both from the rhetoric of advertising and the density of symbolism are key. Though his renunciation of the heroic “self” of romanticism may have come by way of Eliot, he does not share Eliot’s pessimism. Evans shares the passion for effect of Hart Crane, and his lust for an American epic vision, but not his tragedy. Researching Crane the last few days, I suspect that the key to unlocking the careful tension of Evans’ photographs may indeed be linked in no small way to Crane, who had a profound effect on Walker Evans’ career.
This of course will require digression at a later time. But I had to get started somewhere. Evans has been staring at me from the couch. And this of course, will be continued in the upcoming week.