A Master's Long Shadow

Leah Ollman is a San Diego art writer and critic

Walker Evans' legacy is unavoidable. Known primarily for his stripped-down chronicle of the rural poor and vernacular architecture of 1930s America, the photographer (1903-1975) is worshiped like a god by many in the field, and remains, even to his detractors, a giant.

"I don't think there's anybody working in the landscape, or in America, who has come completely out from under the long shadow of Evans," says photographer Joel Sternfeld, whose photographs from the past 25 years provide running commentary on the American scene.

An Evans-centric view of American photography is the guiding impulse behind the exhibition "Walker Evans & Company," now at the J. Paul Getty Museum. Organized by Peter Galassi, chief curator in the department of photography at New York's Museum of Modern Art, the show functions as an extended visual conversation: Evans' work identifies a theme--photography of the vernacular, photography as collecting, frontality and flatness in photography, etc.--and photographs by more than 70 others, from Evans' era and our own, provide resonant commentary.

The son of a prosperous advertising executive, Evans took up photography in the late 1920s, and worked for two years documenting the Atlantic seaboard and Depression-era South for the Resettlement Administration (later called the Farm Security Administration).

Those photographs formed the core of his 1938 one-man exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, the institution's first solo show of a photographer. The show and its accompanying book, both titled "American Photographs," defined Evans' style as clean, straightforward, seemingly transparent.

Evans went on to complete a series of subway portraits made with a concealed camera, to publish, with James Agee, "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men," to write and photograph for Fortune magazine, and, finally, to teach at Yale University. The photographs from the 1930s, however, constitute the quintessential Evans.

In mid-September, the Getty will hold a symposium, open by invitation only, on Evans' work within the context of 19th and 20th century American photography. Here, the conversation prompted by the exhibition continues less formally, with eight photographers weighing in on Evans' austere, inventory-like approach.

KEITH CARTER

Carter's poetic visions of ordinary places and people have earned him two National Endowment for the Arts grants and the Lange-Taylor Prize from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. Born in 1948, Carter lives and teaches in Beaumont, Texas.

I first encountered Evans' work in my very first photography course. I was 21 years old. I read "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men," and I've carried that book around with me ever since. I remember being so astonished at this beautiful, overwrought florid prose and these bare-bones, skeletal pictures of the essence of things. I'm still not over it. They're perfect pictures. They're straight on, unadorned. They haunt me.

The work's not about poetry, it's about the descriptive power of the lens, about the love of the subject matter, and the clear-minded vision of the importance of the subject matter.

I think he had a real conscience about his work. As a photographer, I don't think you can do that kind of work for as long as he did without a moral conscience or an intellectual conscience about it.

I don't think Evans was particularly moral, but his pictures are.

BRUCE DAVIDSON

Born in 1933, Davidson lives and works in New York. His intimate chronicles of teenage gang members in Brooklyn, life on a single block of east Harlem, and New York subway riders have been published and exhibited worldwide.

The spirit of Walker Evans is in my gene pool, whether I like it or not. But I can't say I was a devotee of his approach. Evans never really exposed himself. He never really made contact with people. He was a very intellectual, intelligent photographer, but I approach my work differently. It's a learning process for me. I explore, and when I'm all through, I figure out what I'm exploring. I get the feeling that Evans had a concept of what he wanted to photograph and how he wanted to photograph it, and then placed his camera in order to frame that concept and achieve it. I don't feel comfortable working that way. I feel more comfortable not knowing and learning as I go.

My encounter with Evans himself didn't happen until 1970. I had just finished a project photographing one block of east Harlem. I was at the Museum of Modern Art looking at Aaron Siskind's Harlem photographs in the research facility, and John Szarkowski [then head of the museum's photography department] came out of his office and brought a gentleman over. He said, "Bruce, this is Walker Evans." Evans looked at me and said, "I thought you were black." I knew what he meant, that I had photographed in a black neighborhood with the sensibility of someone who lived there, on the inside.

He was a social critic and a social artist, but what bothered me was that he seemed too aloof, too well-dressed for the job. He was kind of an aristocrat photographing really poor people--and I was a white boy on the freedom ride.

CATHERINE WAGNER

Wagner has investigated contemporary culture through studies of unpeopled construction sites, classrooms, domestic interiors, science laboratories and Disney theme parks. Wagner, born in 1953, lives in San Francisco and teaches at Mills College.

I remember first encountering Evans in undergraduate school, 25 years ago. I remember seeing these ordinary, seemingly banal photographs. There was something transcendent about them.

I'm not interested at all in the dialogue about truth and the document, and about these being the pinnacle of documentary. I'm interested in the time in which we live and trying to make art, conceptually, about contemporary culture. My work has no relationship to the way Evans' pictures look, but there is something pivotal to the way he used the appropriation and recording of insignificant sites and objects.

I don't see Evans as a passionate man, empathizing, but I don't see him as neutral. I see the work as very philosophically and conceptually based. Some work that doesn't scream often has the most political edge to it. It's not screaming, it's not announcing itself, but it's making very thoughtful comments about American culture.

He was definitely taking a position, but under the guise of being authorless. To choose such banal subject matter, when pictorialism was so drippingly beautiful at the time, was a passionate choice.

JOEL STERNFELD

Born in 1944, Sternfeld traveled extensively throughout the U.S. for eight years to produce the photographs in the 1987 book "American Prospects." He lives and works in New York. Several of his photographs appear in the "Walker Evans & Company" show.

When I received my first Guggenheim fellowship in 1978, I was about to go out on the road, and I went for a final visit with my friend Helen Levitt. I knew Helen had been a good friend to Evans, but I also knew one didn't ask her about Evans. But I was so overwhelmed by the opportunity in front of me that I knew I could use all the help I could get. At the end of the evening, I said, "Tell me about Evans." She sat there and thought for a long moment and said, "Well, he was a genius." That's all she said. But then, that was the standard I had to carry around with me for the rest of the year. I had to have those words reverberate in my head. Of course, it was enormously helpful. It said it all.

ROBBERT FLICK

For the past 20 years, Flick has been documenting the urban landscape of L.A. A recent Getty Scholar in the Research Institute for the History of Art and the Humanities, Flick, born in 1939, teaches at USC.

Evans is an extraordinary influence on me. It has to do with the unencumbered clarity of his vision. He saw so precisely that it made an enormous amount of sense to me.

He used photography for a photographic purpose, a lenticular purpose. That was something that really intrigued me, and gave me an insight in terms of location--where to locate yourself--and framing--how to frame so that the picture became a locus of attention and scrutiny. What I liked about his work was that it appeared that nothing was imposed upon what was there. Out of those fragments--each photograph--whole continuities are established.

I think that he was passionate about what he was doing, but that passion was translated into a seeming neutrality. It's easy to look at these pictures and say, "So what?" But when you really look at them, especially as a practitioner, then a whole host of other things opens up.

Photographs can be made to fulfill many different purposes, especially good photographs, because they're open. Evans' photographs are so open that whatever template of attention the viewer brings can be [imposed] upon them. That's a function of that neutrality.

In order to make pictures of that order, there has to be a certain commitment and a certain ruthlessness. One doesn't do work like that without taking a particular position in relation to what is in front of one and what is behind one.

MARY ELLEN MARK

A photojournalist based in New York, Mark, born in 1940, has traveled the world documenting lives on the fringe of society. She produced the Academy Award-nominated film "Streetwise" (1984).

Evans was an extraordinary photographer. There's a real humanity to his work, even though some people find it cold. You can be distant and still get incredible moments. I think he really was someone concerned about people, and the work shows it.

His work is true, no gimmicks. He just had it, he had the vision. So many people try so hard to be arty. He wasn't trying to be anything. He was a brilliant observer, he had an amazing eye. He reminds me very much of [Edward] Hopper. He really saw the essence of a moment. They're monumental, epic moments. It was all about a particular essence. You think, "I know that, I've seen that, I've been there." That's the gift of a great photographer, to bring you to a place.

I think the first book I saw of his was the Agee book. I thought, that's the kind of world I'm interested in.

NICHOLAS NIXON

Nixon is best-known for his large-format portraits of family members, schoolchildren, elderly in nursing homes, and men and women with AIDS. Born in 1947, Nixon lives and works in Boston.

"The first time I looked at "American Photographs," it seemed kind of dry, but I kept looking. In 1962, I saw Walker Evans' rainy street ["Main Street, Saratoga Springs, New York" (1931)] and it just killed me. It stayed with me. A year or so later, I got a view camera and started to use it. I'm sure that was the biggest reason.

Evans used irony beautifully. I think he was poking fun at some of the things he was looking at, but he loved them at the same time. He flattened his pictures, making them into a sort of flag of meaning. There's a sort of dissecting conscience there that's trying to look at the bones of things. He didn't wear his heart on his sleeve necessarily, but he was true to himself and his ideas and how he wanted meaning to come from his work.

ALEX HARRIS

Harris, born in 1949, lives in North Carolina, where he teaches at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. His photographic projects include extended portraits of an Eskimo community and New Mexican villagers. He is also a curator and editor.

I met Evans in 1969 or '70, and I got to know him pretty well. His house was filled with collections of all kinds. He tied his photography closely to the notion of collecting, the notion that photography is essentially a matter of collecting and editing images. That had a huge influence on me.

For me, as a 21-year-old, the idea that I could go out into the world and find something there, rather than within myself, to express was really liberating. He made it seem as though you had to go out into the world and be influenced by what you saw, not by what you learned in school. And that's what I did, I just immersed myself in different worlds.

Evans' genius was his ability to hide himself in his work and let the thing itself come through. Think of a novelist's style, and the way a novelist evokes characters in his or her stories. What does that have to say about the author's true self?

I think about the writers of the South and what their subjects were and still are. When Flannery O'Connor was asked why she chose these strange, poor, bizarre people as characters, she said she was drawn to people for the way the mystery of existence was written across the texture of their ordinary lives.

I think Evans, like the Southern writers, was also drawn to revealing mystery in what seemed so ordinary. He came out of a narrative tradition. He wanted to be a writer, and he was up to something similar to the great writers of the South.

The great irony that's been spoken about him is that he makes it seem that you're seeing the thing itself, and he's not present, but of course, he is. That's his genius.

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