Perhaps this resemblance between documentary and modernist art photography can be explained by an analogy: modernists apply the documentary impulse to the world of nature, objects, and architecture by finding fresh visions of things that have been ignored, devalued, or taken for granted just as documentary photographers present new insights about people who have been ignored, devalued, or taken for granted. (Rachleff, Melissa, 7-8) Of all the documentary photographers, Walker Evans attracted the greatest attention. The issue his critics were most concerned with was that of the style less style.
This was appropriate because Evans strove for the appearance of stylelessness. It was a concept he had gotten from reading Flaubert during his time in Paris in the mid-twenties. Evans said he admired Flauberts realism and naturalism both, and his objectivity of treatment; the non-appearance of the author, the non-subjectivity. (Rachleff, Melissa, 9) He did not take Flauberts apparent objectivity literally, however, nor did he have any pretense to objectivity himself. What Flaubert showed Evans was that art could adopt a style that mimicked the objective manner of strictly utilitarian documents without sacrificing aesthetic taste?
Evans could adopt a documentary style without giving up his standards of formal design. I cant stand a bad design or a bad object in a room, (Rachleff, Melissa, 11) he said, and when something was wrong, he changed it. He also occasionally arranged people into what appear to be candid compositions, and when shooting interiors, he often used a flash, although he disguised its effects in his prints. Evanss critics in the thirties were fooled. They were ready to believe that he had achieved a truly style less style.
Lincoln Kirstein, who helped organize a major show of Evanss work at the Museum of Modern Art in 1938 and who also wrote the after word for the accompanying book, American Photographs, led the way in establishing the myth of Evanss stylelessness? The greatest photographers, Kirstein said, achieve a large quality of eye and a grand openness of vision that, rather than giving their work the mark of individual distinction, gives it a generalized look as if it were all the creation of the same person or even, perhaps, the creation of the unaided machine.
(Lincoln Kirstein, 192) In Kirsteins estimation, Evans was precisely this kind of great photographer. He recognized the futility of developing emotional response for its own sake, and he saw the significance of focus matter. In fact, said Kirstein, it is the creative selection of subject matter that really counts in photography, and in Evanss work, the wave-length of his Kirstein went on to discuss the frontality that gives Evanss work such a powerful sense of objectivity: The most characteristic single feature of Evans work is its purity, or even its puritanism.
It is straight photography not only in technique but in the rigorous directness of its way of looking. All through the pictures in this book you will search in vain for an angle-shot. Every object is regarded head-on with the unsparing frankness of a Russian ikon or a Flemish portrait. The facts pile up with the prints. (Lincoln Kirstein, 192) In fact, there are a few angle shots in American Photographs, but the point is well taken. Evanss frontal views appear clinical. Other reviewers of American Photographs echoed Kirsteins assessment.
Thomas Dabny Mabry, an associate director at the Museum of Modern Art who had helped organize Evanss show there, wrote, Seemingly he arranges nothing, changes nothing, implies nothing. . . . The purity of Evanss work is not only apparent in the straight, unadorned technique, but in the point of view. . . . [The photographs] are never staged. He shows in all his work a reverence for the inviolable history of the object before him. Martha Davidson described Evans as almost always coldly objective and his pictures as free from falsification, exaggeration or distortion. (Thompson, J. , 149)
Kirstein acknowledged, in passing, the influence on Evans of Stendhal, Flaubert, Degas, and Seurat, and in so doing he hinted that Evans had deliberately created his style. But the brief suggestion of an artistic personality was quickly obscured by a return to the theme of unvarnished truth: The pictures of men and portraits of houses have only that expression which the experience of their society and times has imposed on them. (Thompson, J. L, 192) Kirstein also saw a moral component in Evanss work. He described Evans as a member revolting from his own class, who knows best what in it must be uncovered, cauterized and why.
The societal sores Evans saw were the same wounds of industrialization that Stieglitz and his circle had protested. Kirstein wrote of the exploitation of men by machinery and machinery by men, (Lincoln Kirstein, 193) and of the vulgarity of mass culture. Although this tone of social criticism is unmistakable in Evanss pictures, his book is not a call to action; it is not a book that points to problems that can be solved by abolition of the sharecropper system, the establishment of work projects or migrant labor camps. It is rather suggested a book that testifies to waste, selfishness, and internal cultural rot.
Testifying to these ills was, in itself, a moral act. This was not a view shared by everyone. For Edward Alden Jewell, Evanss testimony appeared so clinically detached as to be purely aesthetic and not moral at all. Jewell apparently saw in Evans something akin to the aesthetic vision described by Roger Fry, a vision that takes in everything with complete equanimity, without moral responsibility, completely freed from the binding necessities of our actual existence. Any moral implications drawn from Evanss pictures, said Jewell, are the spectators, not Evanss.
(Blinder, Caroline, 149) Lionel Trilling also addressed the issue of Evanss moral vision in a review of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a book of photographs by Evans and Agee that presented Evanss photographs without any captions, followed by Agees lengthy text detailing the lives of three families of white, Alabama tenant farmers. Trillings review of the book is one of the few that gives equal weight to Evanss photographs and Agees text. The question he asks regarding both is how is the middle class to feel about the underprivileged?
Trilling concludes that Agee, motivated by guilt, ennobles and thus falsifies the image of his subjects. He is able to acknowledge some of their very obvious faults, such as their racism, but he cannot acknowledge any of the more subtle manifestations of meanness of spirit that Trilling is certain are present in these people, just as they are present in any group of people. Trilling does not suggest that Evans does reveal the sharecroppers meanness, but he judges Evans to be more truthful than Agee and more tasteful, by which he means more tactful, just, aware, and respectful.
Trilling is unusual in that he claims no objective detachment for Evans: You cannot be cool about misery so intense, (Blinder, Caroline, 150) he writes. Unlike other critics, he sees that Evanss rendition of the truth is a product of his intense interaction with his subject and not the result of a clinical eye. Trilling confesses that he cannot analyze Evanss taste and cannot say what the morality of his vision is made of in technical and aesthetic terms, but he does, nevertheless, point out one significant aspect of Evanss moral vision.
Referring to the portrait of Mrs. Gudger, which impressed him more than any other, Trilling explains that by allowing his subject to compose herself before the camera, Evans allowed her to defend herself against itas she would not have been able to do had the picture been candid-and in so doing, she gained dignity. Trilling wrote, With all her misery and perhaps with her touch of pity for herself, [she] simply refuses to be an object of your social consciousness; she refuses to be an object at alleverything in the picture proclaims her to be all subject.
(Blinder, Caroline, 151) Evans enhanced the sense of truth in his art not through the illusion of the style less style, but by acknowledging his presence, by showing his hand. In addition to the morality of clear vision, one can recognize in Evanss pictures a set of permanent symbols of the culture. Kirstein was not claiming for Evanss photographs the transcendent universality that Stieglitzs critics claimed for his pictures, but he did see Evanss work as transcending the moment. Evanss pictures as quintessential examples of synecdoche such that the single house, the single street, strikes with the strength of overwhelming numbers.
The work is a monument to our moment. (Lima, Benjamin, 102) The pictures in American Photographs showed bumps, warts, boils and blackheads of the American physiognomy, and that these were the characteristics of a submerged fraction of the culture rather than representative of the whole. Williamson did not question the truthfulness of any of the individual pictures Evans published, but he did imply that Evanss choices of subjects revealed a political bias. But Williamsons has been a minority view.
As John Szarkowski wrote in 1971, Beyond doubt, the accepted myth of our recent past is in some measure the creation of this photographer, whose work has persuaded us of the validity of a new set of clues and symbols bearing on the question of whom we are. Whether that work and its judgment was fact or artifice, or half of each, it is now part of our history. (Lima, Benjamin, 103)
¢ Rachleff, Melissa, Scavenging the Landscape: Walker Evans and American Life. Journal Title: Afterimage. Volume: 23. Issue: 4. Publication Year: 1996. Number: 7+.