Walker Evans, Pt. 7

Evans’ lists

Walker Evans, self-portrait 1929

I feel a lot better about dawdling regarding Walker Evans after receiving James R. Mellow’s biography. It’s over five hundred pages, and only goes to 1957. Mellow died before it was completed. There’s a lot of material out there on Evans. The sources for all my ruminations fill a good-sized banker’s box. I’ve been collecting them for years, because while I know a lot about Evans’ approach, I’m still grappling with him as a man. Conflicting things are written all the time, and Evans encouraged that. He wanted to be a mystery.

I remain stuck in the 1928-31 phase because there is relatively little there, image-wise, though there is a lot of textual stuff. In 1929 Evans changed roommates, from Hans Skolle to Paul Grotz. Skolle was a painter, and Grotz an architect and amateur photographer. Skolle moved out, and Hart Crane left town. Though Evans enjoyed Crane when he was sober, like most people, he couldn’t deal with him drunk.

Part of the reason for the limited number of photographs available, I suspect, is because Evans wanted to destroy any evidence that he was aligned with the “high aesthetic tradition” that he dabbled in, via his cityscapes. In the years from 1929-34, Evans forged a new aesthetic. The romantic or at the very least, dramatic, approach to photography was quickly moved to the itemized list of things he loathed.

Evans made a list of the things Skolle left behind when he moved out, sorting them in a rather familiar pattern.

Thanks for:      No thanks for:
ruler      LePage’s Big Boy Paste
Rosmersholm [by Ibsen]      The Miraculous Revenge
Superior clips         by Bernard Shaw
Vick’s Vaporub      Rock Island time table
twine      garbage
India ink      Burton’s trade purity strength
Asia [a magazine]      delicacy of flavor mark
Monocle      extract of vanilla
The Missing Link      souvenirs of amorous adventures
hatchet      whiskey
Dos En Uno Pasta Superior      oil can

Walker Evans, Grain Elevator and Power Lines, Montreal, Canada, August 1929.

One of the interesting things about the change from Skolle to Grotz as companions, was the fulfillment of some of Evan’s wanderlust. The pair made extensive trips, including one to Canada which has some surviving photographic evidence.

Rosenheim and Eklund paired the grain elevator photograph with a set of prose poems composed around the same time, thinking that the poems might be written in reflection of the Canadian trip; however, they could just as easily be a reflection on New York. Influence is a curious thing.

An interesting attribute also noted by these editors is that the manuscript containing the poems is set apart by short lines, like the lines of a contact sheet of photographs. I think that’s a bit of a reach. That’s also a contextual apparatus also used in books of poetry.

The great thing about Mellow’s biography is that it’s written by a man used to writing biographies of modern writers; he examines the lies, and the reaching involved of trying to make sense of history.

In the introduction, Hilton Kramer notes Walker Evan’s reaction to biography: “They’re all lies! They’re nothing but lies!” Reacting to the suggestion that he write his own memoir, Evans said: “No, no, you don’t understand. I would write lies too. You can’t write anything but lies about the past.”

One thing is certain about this group of poems by Evans: they are hardly the celebration of modernist vision of the city



cube yourselves

black and white in the sun

it is nothing to me that you are a grain elevator

your words carry another word to my eye


shade of a city

falling across the face of a one eyed monster

built by





standing day after day

none sees this




your water is the caress of my eye

one part of a city


punctured cubes

full of stenographers desires banalities

not good enough for their shell

Text on verso:

To hell with the filthy punctured cubes of the city — architecturally speaking. Fourteen thousand two hundred and seventy three tragedies, 67284 mysteries, several obscure dramas with or without poetry there in the night.

Besides the trip to Canada, there were also several subsequent trips to Truro in Cape Cod. Grotz had a place there, and when I get to that section, where this is all going will be much clearer. In his words, Evans reacts against the aestheticism of his day. However, the visual solution to the problem is just around the bend.