Infernal Machine

Infernal Machine

I tracked down Walker Evans’ infamous 1971 interview in Art in America tonight. I really love the way that it opens:

Mr. Evans, do you understand the tape-recording process?

Understand it? I know all about that infernal machine. You talk and it records inconsequential persiflage—illogical, totally misleading stuff. That thing would vitiate Bernard Shaw, Samuel Johnson and Socrates.

Well all right. But you have to let me edit it. Even so, if I chirp it may come out birdbrained. Besides that, as soon as you transcribe from tape, the damned thing becomes a lie detector. But go ahead—you mean it’s already on?

There are several critical bits in this interview that ultimately return to the question of editing. After reading Stephen C. Pinson’s article “Photography’s Nonreproducibilty, or, the Rhetoric of Touch” (nice way to avoid the typical colon in an academic title)—I find myself fascinated by the way that the hand of the artist is reinserted into even the most mechanistic of media through careful editing. One critical question in the interview is here:

In other arts one can speak of a technique of hand or of mind, the draftsmanship of the painter, the craft of the author. In photography there is a mechanical instrument and a moment when the eye, having looked through the lens, allows the hand to click a lever. How can all that we’ve expected of literature and art find a commensurate expression in a medium that is basically a mechanism?

Well, that’s what makes photography so special and interesting and unknown as an art, and that’s why so many people don’t see anything in it at all. The point is difficult and abstruse. And that’s why I say half jokingly that photography is the most difficult of the arts.

It does require a certain arrogance to see and to choose. I feel myself walking on a tightrope instead of on the ground. With the camera, it’s all or nothing. You either get what you’re after at once, or what you do has to be worthless. I don’t think that the essence of photography has the hand in it so much. The essence is done very quietly with a flash of the mind, and with a machine.

I think photography is editing, editing after the taking. After knowing what to take you have to do the editing.

3 thoughts on “Infernal Machine”

  1. Yes, actually I do, Tom.
    One thing that is missed in the pomo criticism of Evans is that he, like the other modernists including Weston, appealed to a transcendental standard to undergird their personal choices of material. Evans chosen transcendental standard included a critique of the commonplace, Weston’s did not. That is why he is a hero and Weston is a villian, at least in Sontag’s eyes.
    But they are actually much closer than contemporary critiques would care to admit.

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