“Walker Evans Intimidated”
It’s hard to imagine Walker Evans as shy. A droll bohemian cum connoisseur of Americana, Evans was infamous for his reserved manners and caustic humor, traits that paralleled his aesthetic as a photographer. A fanatical reader and writer, Evans was careful and precise in both words and pictures. Primarily known for his uncomplicated, documentary photographs of rural America and Americana during the Great Depression, Evans was relentlessly forward with his camera, capturing a truthful essence his subject with a vigilant disregard for affectation and ornament. “He was devoted to revealing the commonplace in a brutally direct and artless way,” John T. Hill writes of Evans in the forward to his book, co-authored with Giles Mora, Walker Evans The Hungry Eye. “If there was the slightest extraneous fat of information left on the negative, no matter how graceful, he would relentlessly cut away to the bone.” However insistently direct in images Evans was throughout his career—which spans most of the twentieth century—some of Evans’s early photographs betray a subtle tentativeness in approach.
Walker Evans, Allie Mae Burroughs, 1936
By the 1930s, Evans had already attempted and abandoned a writing career before achieving a modest success as a photographer. Evans’s simple, clairvoyant photographs earned the attention of Lincoln Kirstein, then a burgeoning curator and connoisseur. With Kirstein’s urging, Evans undertook a project documenting Victorian architecture as it commenced to decay. The work would prove prescient and poetic, garnering an exhibit at the newly minted Museum of Modern Art in New York. While Evans’s work prior to this project was starkly modernist, reminiscent of Europeans such as Alexander Rodchenko, his work was now informed by neutral, “straight-on” perspectives and an earnest concentration on the plain. The photographs from the Victorian Architecture thematically and formally informed Evans’s next body of work: photographs of the old, Deep South.
“In all this work, the photographer combined a poet’s conceptual awareness of culture with an architect’s love of form,” writes Jeff Rosenheim of Evans’s photographs of the Antebellum South in his catalogue essay for the 1991 exhibition, Walker Evans and Jane Ninas in New Orleans 1935-1936 at the Historic New Orleans Collection. “He used a straightforward, deceptively simple mode of presentation: the camera viewpoint is almost always strictly frontal, centered and architectonically true…Evans was sure that part of the meaning of his photographs would be their illusionary quality of authenticity.” But behind this self-assurance is also tinge of apprehension, as Rosenheim observes in his essay. Take for instance a number of Evans’s photographs of the impoverished, decrepit black neighborhoods in and around Mississippi, such as “Mississippi Town, Negro Quarter,” in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s permanent collection. Evans’s some signature motifs are present, such past-prime signage and rudimentary, unadorned architecture, documented a plain, ‘honest’ aesthetic. The figures in this work seem particularly distant and withdrawn from the camera’s eye; indeed, a sense of malevolent mystery pervades the picture given the almost obscured “666” motif at the photograph’s lower right. Perhaps Evans was just slightly intimidated by the rawness of the area, and these photographs can thus be read as thinly veiled comments on race relations in the 1930s. Or maybe Evans had yet to truly find his confident, careful footing as a photographer, and early works such as “Mississippi Town, Negro Quarter,” illuminate Evans’s maturing poise behind the camera.
“Evans’ [sic] charm was in his split-second response to the situation at hand, his dry wit and nimble play on words, as quick and cool as his camera eye,” writes Belinda Rathbone in her 1995 biography of Evans, Walker Evans: A Biography. However, close inspection gives up a deep sensitivity and timidity, overcome through respectful, truthful documentary photography. Similarly, a thorough look at the early work of many photographers informs us of idiosyncrasies and faint patterns in style, theme and subject.