At the turn of the twentieth century, the city was the place to be. Most currents in the art of the time owe a big debt not just to machine culture, but to the imposing presence of the modern city. With the benefit of the time that separates us, somehow the responses seem almost preprogrammed.
The city almost seems to dictate its own aesthetic. The reactions which Walker Evans had to draw from with were largely European, and it almost might be painted as a battle between the French and the Germans. The breeding ground of the German Expressionists was the sense of disillusionment of the city, with its anxiety and psychic distress. The disenchantment can be read in the poetry of the time, and it can also be seen in the visual evidence of early modernism.
One reaction to discontent is a pure aesthetic formalism, as exemplified by the Bauhaus. But there remains the echo of a transcendent, idealistic, form. Evans’ formative years are found in this milieu, using the city as a metaphoric and symbolic object. There is a comfort in such reductionism. But peeking out from the corners there is a sort of human cry of distress, as all things become reduced in the scale of the city.
At the same time there is an exuberance that almost becomes lost, in an objective search for aesthetic perfection. It seems almost inevitable that all the Americans that became caught up in these German trends would later recant them, including Evans’ contemporaries Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand. And the romanticism of the French was similarly dismissed, to forge an American vision.
In some ways, these early modern works are the visual equivalents to Marx’s theory of the alienation of the worker. From the aerial perspective, most things are diminished, reduced, and darkened.
Reflecting on Paul Strands relationship with Modernism, Milton W. Brown proposed that there were three roads taken. The first was that of “urban realism” where the forms of the city were dealt with in an intuitive, non-academic fashion. This was the tradition of Louis Hine, which was also deeply tied to photography as a means of social change.
The second road leads to abstraction, and to an almost expressivist reaction to the forces which seemed to loom large over the face of humanity in these periods of change. The third road, was into portraiture, an attempt at universalizing the experience of change.
Though these photographs flirt with these perspectives, ultimately I think that Evans reinvented realism beyond the boundaries of mythic expressivism, with a strong sense of form without the slavery to it.
There was a quest for the new that made these efforts a bubble, a sort of experimentalism that he would later reject. But viewed in the correct context, you can see him learning his trade. Against the aesthetic of texture, formulated by West Coast practioners like Weston and Adams, as well as Strand later in his career, the attention to form was never far from Evans’ consciousness. He just found entirely new ways to implement it, outside the strictures of formalism.
I think that photographs of this type, formal exercises, are a phase that all photographers must pass through. It’s largely the place and time that give them value, rather than the high-flown aesthetic presumptions. They are studies in how to deal with the city, not the pronouncements of a new art. That part comes later.