Helen Levitt, No-Nonsense New Yorker

The photographer Thomas Roma, a friend of hers for almost 25 years and one of her poker companions, recalls Levitt telling him about a visit from a woman researching a biography of Walker Evans. [Belinda Rathbone? J.W.]

“She wanted to know if I had ever had an affair with Evans,” said an indignant Levitt, who told the biographer, “of course not.”

Then Levitt looked back over her shoulder at Mr. Roma and smiled, “Of course I slept with him. But it’s not for me to say those sorts of things.”

WSJ, 4-01-2009 [Thanks Cheryl!]

House Calls is an excellent book, by the way—I’ve been binging on William Carlos Williams lately and this is yet another little moment where a person can only think that it’s a small world after all.

Flogged with a wet noodle

On my way to San Francisco a few weeks ago, I read John Tagg’s The Disciplinary Frame. Much to my surprise (I hated The Burden of Representation), I thought this latest book was truly outstanding. Though his claim that he’s been “misunderstood” since that first book feels hollow to me, this new book is well rounded and convincing. He hasn’t just spackled over the cracks in the first book, he’s crafted a sturdy fence to contain his Foucauldian strip-mining operation.

There’s a lot to say about the book, but what I’d like to highlight for the moment is his excursus into Walker Evans’s “melancholy realism” (chapter 3). I go through phases of love and hate with Evans. I taught his photographs for Let Us Now Praise Famous Men in opposition to Margaret Bourke White earlier this semester, and Tagg followed the same path. Tagg’s treatment was well constructed, featuring most of the usual touchstones. Adding Archibald McLeish’s Land of the Free into the mix was a step in a new (and to my mind productive) direction.

Tagg’s overarching point was that all attempts at symbolic communication during the depression were fatally flawed, and that Evans was particularly instructive because it was conscious of that failure—marked by his resistance to meaning, a “lassitude” that was both philosophical and constitutional. Increasingly I feel that this is perhaps one of hallmarks of twentieth century art which shows no sign of abating in the twenty-first, as evidenced by Dorothy Gambrell’s latest Cat and Girl strip. However, there is more at stake than fragile artistic egos or the perversion of artistic products for profit. Tagg recounts multiple examples of Evans’s “melancholy realism” targeted at a more a specific end:

What interests me to bring into play in relation to Evans are, rather those accounts that place melancholy at the limits of sense, where melancholy holds to an impossible encounter with a real that is the condition of existence and failure of all systems of meaning.

For Julia Kristeva, melancholy points to the breakdown of symbolic bounds under the insistent pressure of an archaic and unsymbolizable narcissistic wound for which there can be no compensation for and which no agent can stand as referent, a wound arising from the loss of an unnamable, unseparated, elusive, unrepresentable Thing—“ the real that does not lend itself to signification.” (176)

Tagg’s book was fresh in my mind when I went to see Face of our Time at SF MOMA. Walking into that show (backwards, by accident) I was seized with a sort of revulsion that I seldom feel toward modern photographic work. I couldn’t stop thinking to myself, “this is just predatory and wrong” (for a second time). I walked through the show in a forward direction the next day and my impression was still the same. It brought into sharp focus a growing dissatisfaction that I have been feeling with many contemporary photographers (Alec Soth being a prime example).

The photographs of Face of our Time were taken by four different photographers, Yto Barrada, Guy Tillim, Judith Joy Ross, Leo Rubinfien. Representing multiple continents, people were frozen seemingly surreptitiously (like Evans’s Subway Portraits) and captured in a somewhat standardized expression of abject boredom’ caught in between moments, where it seems they might have smiled, or been angry, or felt something rather than this dull sameness a split second before or after. Note the singularity of the title—the universal face of our time is (apparently) boredom. The pictures are all oddly dead, and the fault does not lie with the subjects. It was a matter of choice by the artists—the standard choice of many today—to be flaccid and ineffectual. I am not only growing bored with this boredom, I am seized with an active distaste for it. Walker Evans is an easy target as a ground zero for this indifference.

Tagg’s most striking examples of Evans’s flaccid attitude come from Lincoln Kirsten and John Cheever

Kirsten recorded his increasing frustration with Evans: “No resilience or energy He resists one only on tiny details—how a door should be shut, etc. If ever opposed in conversation he says ‘I don’t know.’ Tired, inert—reminds me of a constipated and castrated bulldog—old and squatting before his time.” Kirsten felt, to his aggravation, that Evans exerted a “negative personal magnetism which is his only and suicidal claim on people.” In December 1931, seeing Evans off on his cruise on the South Seas as the official photographer of the Cressida, Kirsten noted irritably, “Walker was as usual, nervous, jerky, devitalized and displaying ½ filament of magnetism.”

Caught between attraction and rejection, these were images other friends, colleagues, and lovers of this time shared and felt the need to repeat. Forty years on, Evans’s friend and one-time photographic assistant, the writer John Cheever, still pictured, or remembered, Evans in the mid-1930s as an unenthusiastic and “rather put off” seducer with “an enormous cock that showed only the most fleeting signs of life.” Flaccid, flickering, secretive, bored, sexually passive, inaccessible—the sense that Evans was not entirely there was oddly compelling to his New York acquaintances even as it exasperated them. (175-176).

I have not tracked down the Kirsten citations, but I could not resist the need to locate Cheever’s remarks in context. I feel that they are concrete and not as speculative as Tagg intimates—Cheever wasn’t speaking entirely metaphorically. Full evidence beneath the fold (not rated G).

Continue reading “Flogged with a wet noodle”

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.