The other evening, on returning to Seoul, I went with a few friends to an exhibition of Walker Evans photographs. The setting was high up on the 18th floor of a classy building facing the Olympic Park in the southeast corner of the city in a new Photography Museum. I had been acquainted, closely, with the work of Evans since long ago in 1960, where I was introduced to photography at the Institute of Design at IIT, where I studied a few years, one in a class by Aaron Siskind. I recall having bought a book of Evans’ pictures, poring over it lovingly. I am pretty sure I also saw a number of direct prints at the Chicago Art Institute. And since then I have frequently returned to Evans, in books, and in isolated photographs in museums, and of course in the now ubiquitous famous images imprinted on our culture from those which appeared in James Agee’s Now Let Us Praise Famous Men. Walker Evans’ images not only reflect America, but they are now deeply embedded in its culture, they are a profound part of America.
A handful of Walker’s pictures have gathered for themselves an iconic status as quintessential American images, as with the sharecropper’s wife, an image which can stand with Grant Wood’s American Gothic, or any number of those of illustrator Norman Rockwell, or Jasper Johns’ Flags, or the Chrysler building in New York City, or Edward Hopper’s paintings. Each of these, along with many others, captures some fundamental element of what makes America itself, just as certain images manage to condense and symbolize other cultures: a Giotto or Michaelangelo for Italy, a Hokusai for Japan, or Goya or Ribera for Spain.
With Walker Evans there is a seeming self-effacement, in which he disappears into his work, as if he chose to not exist, but to be supplanted by those things which he photographed, as did Eugene Atget. It is a work which is minimalist, direct, almost as if there were nothing to it. For the most part he presents things frontally, as if to simply say “there is this.” And then this. And this. It seems almost artless, and yet it is of the highest art, capturing so much with seemingly so little. And yet cumulatively what emerges is a very distinct vision, one which would seem to be easily replicable, but which is not. Evans’ legacy is vast, written in a long list of photographers, very widely different, whose work can be seen refracted in Evans’ lens: Bruce Davidson, Robert Frank, Joel Meyerwitz, Paul Strand, among many other Americans; or Berndt and Hilla Becher abroad. Or among painters, Warhol, or even Rauschenberg, along with Johns and Hopper, and many others. The list is long and would include filmmakers, such as James Benning and certainly myself.
In books, however well made, or on the internet, one doesn’t really get to see these pictures. The exquisite craft and artful concerns which went into their making disappear in the reduction to what the digital means of the net can do, or even in the best of printing for books. To see the actual images one must go to a show like the one I went to here, or to a museum with archival quality prints. The tonal range of Evans’ work is gorgeous – a rich delicate palette of grays, here and there a white, or a dense deep black. On looking at the prints one can see how attuned his eye was to these qualities, and how much control he took, as well as how much he was attracted to certain things from which he could compose his images with an artist’s sensitivity to the effects of his medium. As with other truly great photographers, it is this attentiveness to the nature of his medium which elevates him beyond just “taking pictures.” As simple as his images appear, they are in truth rich and complex demonstrations of what can be done artistically with a camera, film, chemistry, light and a subject. If you wish to really understand Evans’ capacities, go to an exhibit such as the one I saw, or visit a museum with a good collection you can access. It is similar to seeing a real Durer watercolor of a bird’s wing, Wing of a Roller, as I did in Vienna, and seeing the pale reproduction the museum there offers. There is really no comparison.
As I wandered this exhibit, one time, then another and then another, re-seeing these images, my eyes moistened. In part it was owing to the artful beauty – not just the “look” but the content of these images, and their rich understanding and embrace of life, our lives. In part perhaps it was due to these images being far closer to the reality of my young life than is today’s America – there has been a profound change, and these images recall for me the “Negro” shanty-town I would visit across a large field from the house where I lived when going to high-school in Fairfax, Virginia. They recall the times I hitch-hiked in the mid-west in the late 60’s, in Wisconsin and Illinois, and later from California to Montana in the early 70’s. Since that time a flush of wealth and corporate uniformity has left much of this older America in the dust, and the new suburban housing developments, the cities all gleam with a thin plastic veneer that lacks the character of that older time. Perhaps my tears were nostalgic, a signal of passing times and loss. In part they came as I sensed something our country has lost – not merely of the “look” which Evans images captured and which could not be found today – but of the soul. However ragged, however poor, however crude, that old America had a character which our present America lacks. Perhaps it has to do with hard times, with genuine difficulty, with real work. I sense the same thing in Europe where it seems that everything has gone slack and what is present exists more for tourists – even if they live there – than being emblematic of a real life. Or perhaps it was for my recognition that those shadow-portraits which Walker Evans took of himself in his youth reminded me of my own gangly young self, unsure, as one must always be unsure, taking first steps out into the world, yet feeling that something stirred inside, and something would come of one’s tentative efforts. And naturally, being shadows, they reminded of our evanescence. All together these feelings entered me, looking at these wonderful photographs, and traced a life-long etching in my own soul.
Thank you, Walker Evans.
[The Metropolitan Museum in New York maintains a very large on-line collection of Evans' work which is deeply instructive for watching how an artist grows. There's very much, but it is worth it to take some time to look, carefully, as he did.]