Walker Evans & the Written Word
by David Campany
How did Flaubert, Baudelaire, Proust, and other writers inform the creator of “documentary-style” photography?
Of all the various practices of photography—advertising, industrial imaging, family albums, and the rest—it is perhaps photojournalism that brings together word and image most often and most necessarily. Usually it involves two people—a photographer and a writer—collaborating, ideally. Sometimes the photographer writes, but this is less common than the writer who photographs. In an economic climate that is challenging for photojournalism (to put it mildly) it seems easier to get a writer to photograph than it is to get a photographer to write. But there have been a handful of individuals who wanted and were able to do both. One of the most remarkable was Walker Evans.
Evans’s first calling was the written word. At college he studied French literature and was an avid reader of the cutting- edge literary journals of the 1920s, when fussy Victorian prose was giving way to the lucid and fragmentary language of modern life, and James Joyce and T.S. Eliot were idolized. During a year in Paris (1926–27) Evans also read Flaubert, Baudelaire, Proust, and others. He attempted to write, in the form of short and intense prose pieces, but the ambition was crushing: “I wanted so much to write that I couldn’t write a word,” he recalled at the end of his career. Returning to New York in 1927, he sensed the camera might offer the descriptive and expressive power that had eluded him in words, but he never lost the desire to write.
In August 1929, at the age of twenty-five, Evans was first published. A new magazine titled Alhambra carried two unrelated contributions: a typically modernist photograph of soaring cranes constructing the Lincoln Building on Manhattan’s East 42nd Street, and an accomplished translation from the French of an extract of Moravagine (1926), Blaise Cendrars’s delirious novel about a psychotic killer. Evans’s image was too deferential to
the city’s spectacle but Cendrars’s language came close to the frank but equivocal description that would come to define Evans’s photography.
While perfecting what he came to call “documentary-style” photography, Evans produced sequences of images to sit along- side texts by other writers: Carleton Beals’s political exposé The Crime of Cuba (1933), the experimental journalism of James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: Three Tenant Families (1941), and Karl Bickel’s documentary travel book The Mangrove Coast: The Story of the West Coast of Florida (1942). Rather than being smoothly integrated in the manner of populist books and mainstream magazines, in each case Evans’s images sat apart from the text, obliging the reader–viewers to actively negotiate their own response.
Evans did take commissions from magazines, and sometimes this led to interesting work. In 1937 Fortune magazine published “Six Days at Sea,” Evans and James Agee’s sly observation of a tourist cruise to Havana (an assignment conducted entirely incognito). Evans worked with the journalist Katherine Hamill to produce a report on slum clearance and social housing in 1939 for Harper’s Bazaar. In 1943 he landed a job as a writer at Time, reviewing films, books, and exhibitions. Agee was on the staff, as were James Stern and Saul Bellow. With a little help from Agee, Evans soon mastered Time’s concise, urbane, and witty house style. He drew readers’ attention to gems of popular culture and obscure treasures: the Krazy Kat cartoon strip, children’s art, the little-known sculptures of Edgar Degas, Winston Churchill’s paintings, anatomical drawings, and self-portraits.
Two years later Evans became the only staff photographer at Fortune. This offered the chance to get more involved in the form his work might take on the page. But the real breakthrough came in 1948 when he was made Fortune’s special photographic editor. Part of his task was to advise on the magazine’s visual style, but in answering directly to the managing editor rather than the art director, Evans was able to set his own assignments. With a degree of autonomy unheard of in magazines before or since, he would shoot, edit, write, and design his pages.
To accompany his photographs Evans cultivated a style of writing that was rich in rhetorical flourish, vernacular expressions, literary quotations, obscure historical references, pithy facts, and adjectives of baroque splendor. There were also moments of high polemic. Although these texts were rarely longer than a few hundred words, he crafted them tirelessly. He also kept a close eye on the typesetting, with a poet’s sensitivity to the placement of line breaks. In a 1971 interview, he recalled: “The writing wasn’t easy for me to master. But I was determined to be my own editor, so I worked hard on it. Any test met is part of one’s development.” He understood the deep connections between photography and literature. “Photography seems to be the most literary of the graphic arts,” he reflected in his chapter written for Louis Kronenberger’s anthology Quality: Its Image in the Arts (1969). “It will have—on occasion, and in effect— qualities of eloquence, wit, grace, and economy; style, of course; structure and coherence; paradox, play and oxymoron.” Indeed, the cool sobriety of his great literary heroes had far less effect on his prose than on his photography:
I wasn’t very conscious of it then, but I know that Flaubert’s esthetic is absolutely mine. Flaubert’s method I think I incorporated almost unconsciously, but anyway used in two ways: his realism and naturalism both, and his objectivity of treatment; the non-appearance of author, the non-subjectivity. That is literally applicable to the way I want to use a camera and do. But spiritually, however, it is Baudelaire who is the influence on me.
Evans’s lifelong interest in the commonplace things that modern progress deems trivial or forgettable was thoroughly Baudelairean. In society’s rejects and refuse we may find its truth. Fortune’s ethos was to champion the new, but Evans looked to the outmoded or the enduring. Fortune celebrated the world of work; Evans reflected on unemployment or idle pleasures such as wandering. Fortune heralded steel-and-glass construction; Evans cherished endangered vernacular buildings of wood and stone that improved with age and patina. While Fortune announced the new modular office, Evans looked at reliable establishments, such as local insurance firms, run by “men who cannot possibly put in a honest day’s work while clad in a razor-sharp two hundred dollar suit of clothes.” (“Vintage Office Furniture,” Fortune, August 1953). Fortune celebrated department stores; Evans looked to the sidewalk displays of small shops.
His images of everyday objects and life in the slower lane anticipated by decades the American color photographers of the 1970s (William Eggleston, Stephen Shore), while his words were ironic but affectionate. Take, for example, this from “The Pitch Direct” (Fortune, October 1958):
The stay-at-home tourist, if his eye is properly and purely to be served, should approach the street fair without any reasonable intention, such as that of actually buying something […] Does this nation overproduce? If so, one can get a lot of pleasure and rich sensual enjoyment out of contemplating great bins of slightly defective tap wrenches, coils upon coils of glinty wire, and parabolas of hemp line honest and fragrant. A man of perfectly good sense may decide after due meditation that a well-placed eggplant (2 for 27 cents) is pigmented with the most voluptuous and assuredly wicked color in the world.
At times Evans’s captions would deliberately change the meaning of, or undermine, his pictures. His article “Imperial Washington” (Fortune, February 1952) resembles a simple tourist’s survey of the capital’s stately architecture—which is really showbiz:
The last, large burst of classicism struck Washington as a direct result of the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. So successful was the midwestern creation in plaster that its chief architects and planners moved on to the capital almost to a man and forever froze the face of the city into its Roman Renaissance expression.
Across the 1950s and ’60s Evans’s photography grew increasingly Flaubertian—simple, direct, and incisive, while his words grew poetic and arch. To do it the other way around, with plain text introducing florid images, would risk pretention, like a gallery of grandstanding pictures. The last thing Evans wanted for his magazine pages was Art. He was making resistant journalism, countering the values and conventions of the mainstream. He produced more than forty photo-essays for Fortune and several for other titles. “Color Accidents” (Architectural Forum, January 1958) was a suite of square compositions picked out from weathered walls of a New York street. The writing compares but distances them from abstract painting, then at its popular height:
The pocks and scrawls of abandoned walls recall the style of certain contemporary paintings, with, of course, the fathomless difference that the former are accidents untouched by the hand of consciousness. Paul Klee would have jumped out of his shoes had he come upon the green door below.
Evans’s photographs of these colors and marks are consummate formal exercises. However, the text suggests that what’s important are the walls themselves and that his photographs are, in the first instance, documents of things worth noticing in the world. These were not pictures for exhibition: they were elegant reports fashioned for the page.
At times Evans’s love of literature became explicit. In 1948 he was commissioned by Vogue to photograph the Southern landscape depicted in the novels of William Faulkner. He admired the writer, who was about to break six years’ silence with the publication of Intruder in the Dust. Faulkner’s novels were set in the fictional Yoknapatawpha County, so, strictly speaking, it could not be photographed. Evans’s languid and haunting six-page response is almost devoid of people. A cemetery, rail tracks, wood-frame houses, shacks, and fading mansions—these are spaces where something has or could happen, as if each photograph might preface a chapter.
Evans does something similar with “The U.S. Depot” (Fortune, February 1953), in which a survey of single-building railroad stations seems more like a set of locales for short stories once we read the introductory paragraph. “And what is on that green-paper note handed up on its looped stick to the engineer as the 3:52 brakes to a stop? Does it say ‘Train five Engine eight four nine six delayed at Millerton hot journal box,’ or does it say ‘Tell Jeanie I’ll get pork chops’?”
The following year, 1954, Faulkner saw a photograph by Evans of a cemetery plot (Woodbridge Family Monument, Mansfield, Kentucky, 1945), inspiring him to write the short story “Sepulture South: Gaslight.” It was published in Harper’s Bazaar alongside the imposing image. It’s a Proustian remembrance, part fact, part fiction, of the funeral of Faulkner’s grandfather. The narrator returns to the gravestones, “stained now, a little darkened by time and weather and endurance, but still serene, impervious, remote, gazing at nothing, not like sentinels, not defending the living from the dead by means of their vast ton-measured weight and mass, but rather the dead from the living ….” Seen from the rear, Evans’s stone family now appears to be turning away from time itself.
Evans’s enduring reputation, endorsed by museums world- wide, is that of an artist operating in the guise of a documentarian. His magazine work complicates this casting. It is clear he was interested in making independent and resistant photojournalism that really only worked when image, text, and design came together on the page. A photojournalist can, of course, be informed by art and literature. Such influences certainly made Evans’s work better. The finest illustration is perhaps “Along the Right-of-Way,” an eight-page piece from 1950 on the simple pleasures of gazing from train windows. The opening photograph is as good as any painting by Edward Hopper or Charles Sheeler. And his text is a minor miracle of reported fact, remembrance, suggestion, allusion, flight of fancy, and even physics. All in three short, sublime paragraphs.
David Campany is a writer and curator. He teaches at the university of Westminster, London, and recently published Walker Evans: The Magazine Work with Steidl. Campany’s The Open Road: Photography and the American Road Trip was published by Aperture this fall.