The Exacting Eye of Walker Evans
"Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long."
So advised Walker Evans (1901-1975), who knew something about staring, prying, listening and eavesdropping. He also knew a thing or two about photography as well, as The Exacting Eye of Walker Evans, an inspired and inspiring exhibition of his work at the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, proves beyond any doubt. Indeed, Evans and his circle of friends, associates and mentors like Berenice Abbott, Paul Strand, Dorothea Lange and Ben Shahn eschewed the arty pretensions of modernists like Alfred Stieglitz and yet still managed to elevate documentary photography to the levels of fine art and, in Evans' case, poetry.
As exhibit curator Amanda Burdon explained, "When he was called a documentary photographer, Evans was quick to qualify it with 'I work in the documentary style.' He developed a concept of 'lyric documentary,' a sort of documentary-plus."
The two enormous photographic prints that greet you as you walk into the exhibition point up the difference. One, "Garage on Outskirts of Southern City," from 1936, is a true documentary photograph filled with enough period detail to keep social historians busy for hours. The other, "Joe's Auto Graveyard," from 1935, is documentary-plus, a work of art with the power of a Corot landscape. Maybe it's the leafless trees in the distance or absence of humans amidst mounds of metallic waste; whatever, Evans had that kind of "exacting" vision.
This exhibition, which indirectly resulted from Evans having lived the final years of his life in Old Lyme while also teaching at Yale, offers more than the usual iconic work from the 1930s, when the two photographs above were taken. At that time, Evans worked for both the Farm Security Administration and Fortune magazine documenting the national landscape at the peak of the Great Depression. The FSA stuff, a roomful of which is here, is still charged with energy and passion, but the show's real buzz is found in the gallery's other two rooms, which are filled with Evans' less familiar work from before and after his fertile Depression period.
It's clear from this evidence that, unlike many of his contemporaries, Evans had a good idea where he was headed even before he picked up a camera. A relatively late bloomer, he didn't start taking photographs seriously until after he'd dropped out of college, lived a bohemian life in France, where he fell under the sway of writers like Baudelaire, and thought of himself as a poet — a strangely quixotic pursuit for a child with comfortably Midwestern roots. Upon his return to New York in 1927, he neither hid from nor flaunted his literary impulses. He was, as it turns out, a poet all along; he just hadn't realized until then that verse could be written with a 35mm Leica camera shooting black-and-white film. The real sign that he found his niche was when the "real" poet Hart Crane asked him to provide images for his book-length masterpiece The Bridge. Evans would later collaborate with another doomed literary genius, James Agee, on what became the 1941 book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, an enduring classic of American artistry. Examples of the work that went into that book are in abundance in The Exacting Eye of Walker Evans.
Just before embarking on his Depression photographic surveys, Evans went to Cuba in 1933, more or less under cover, to document the corruption of President Gerardo Machado. The poverty and suffering and pride of the Cuban people that he captured on film, extraordinary examples of which are on view here, presaged his own wanderings across Depression-era America. One portrait of a strange coal-black man with a shovel haunts the viewer with its unflinching gaze while another equally strange shot of a street sculpture jars with its creepiness. His style was almost fully formed right from the start, with these Cuban images — unflinching, face-front, an unblinking stare that elevated all of his subjects to the status of cathedral windows. Or, as art historian John Szarkowski noted, the photographs of Evans presented "facts with such fastidious reserve that the quality of the picture seemed identical to that of the subject."
Evans himself later offered this halting explanation: "I was working by instinct but with a sense — not too clear, but a firm sense — that I was on the right track, that I was doing something valuable and also pioneering aesthetically and artistically."
Getting back to the eavesdropping, one of Evans' most fascinating projects — examples also on view here — was "The Passengers," a series of snapshots of strangers on the subways of New York that occupied him for three decades. Concealing a 35mm camera under his jacket, he took the sort of candid shots that Robert Frank would later build his career around.
Burden said, "Evans always said that he didn't like posed, slick typical portrait photography. Long before people talked about high and low culture, he was embracing both."