Independent Reviews Site – Editor’s Book Pick

Leaving aside the mysteries and the inequities of human talent, brains, taste, and reputations, the matter of art in photography may come down to this: it is the capture and projection of the delights of seeing; it is the defining of observation full and felt. -Walker Evans

Walker Evans claimed he wanted to disappear into his subjects but he can’t escape his own honesty. His clear vision elevates his subject without entirely subordinating his role as the photographer. The J. Paul Getty Museum has published Walker Evans Cuba, a beautiful collection of Evans’ photographs taken in Cuba in 1933 for Carleton Beals’ Crime of Cuba, a literary indictment of Cuban president Gerardo Machado (in office from 1925 to 1933). Evans captured a pre-Revolutionary Havana that seems frozen in time, pointing up the paralysis and all the crumbling grandeur since Castro took over in 1959. One wonders which regime was worse.

An essay by Andrei Codrescu waxes fancifully on the stories behind Evans’ photos, freely mixing his lively imagination with impressions of his recent trip to the island. For example, he assumes a shot of an attractive woman in a linen dress (plate 20) to be prostitute apparently because the man across the square is watching her, as if her attractiveness had nothing to do with it. Codrescu’s essay, while entertaining, shows a serious lack of technical photographic knowledge. His comments indicate that most of the shots must have been taken candidly with a 35mm camera, Robert Frank-style. Evans did use a fairly portable roll film camera for some of the street photography. But the cityscapes, landscapes, architectural details, and the portraits were all taken with an 8x10view camera, which requires lots of attention to technical detail and affords virtually no spontaneity. Furthermore, Evans didn’t speak Spanish. During his entire month-long stay, mostly in Havana, Cuban journalist Jorge Fern‡ndez De Castro, or his brother JosŽ Antonio, also a reporter, accompanied him. It would have been nearly impossible for Evans to gain access to people without a guide. He was anything but inconspicuous.

 

Evans maintained his personal vision whether he was shooting for Fortune magazine, hardly a bastion of leftist politics, or the Farm Security Administration, for whom he photographed three tenant farmer families in Alabama in 1936 for James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Codrescu points out how relatively unpolitical Evans’ photographs were for the Cuban assignment. The Cuba photos aren’t substantially different from his personal work or his other assignments. His compositions, whether they were storefronts, crowds, architecture or portraits, tended to be formal; they were seen and presented exactly like his previous work and continued in all of his later work. Engaged by his publisher at the last minute, Evans met with Carleton Beals only once before he left for Cuba and the manuscript wasn’t yet completed. Evans didn_t see the book until he returned. He was a pretty single-minded guy. It seems unlikely that he ever intended to cramp his own style to illustrate Beals’ strident, angry text. Even when he was photographing outside of Havana, he turned his cameras on his usual subjects. There doesn’t seem to be any record of what Beals’ thought of the photos, but they don’t particularly depict a society on the brink of destruction. Crime of Cuba used only a selection of Evans’ work. The Getty has included some additional photos from their own collection that weren’t published in Beals’ book.

 Even a quick survey of Evans’ work shows that he was primarily an urban photographer that was attracted to “ragged nobility, architectural ruins, empty slogans, unmourned tragedies.” Like most visual artists, Evans was also seduced by the quality of light. He would keep going back to a spot he liked until the light was just how he wanted it. Evidently the view camera exactly suited his shy, meticulous personality. He liked to be on his own, fussing with his equipment. His compositions tended to be almost straight on to his subject so using a view camera aided him in keeping the correct perspective to his subjects. View cameras have a wide variety of swings and tilts that can do practically everything but see around a corner. They are perfect for shooting architecture where the photographer is standing on the street looking up at a building. The photographer can create the illusion that he was on an elevated platform, consequently what the lens captures is higher than the photographer is. It draws attention away from the photographer by shifting the perspective off the sidewalk and into a more objective view. This works with any subject, even portraiture. Sometimes Evans used a 35mm Leica peeking out of his unbuttoned shirt or jacket, making images by catching people on the sly on the street or in the subway. That way he could capture something real without being forced to engage with people.Evans is probably best known for his cityscapes. Ironically, I especially love his posed portraits. The Stevedore portraits (plates 32-36) show Evans at his best. Coal Stevedore (plate 34) stands out as my favorite in the collection. This is where the view camera outshines the smaller format cameras. The superior view camera lenses retain shadow detail that miniaturized cameras can only match under ideal conditions. Even in reproduction the light in the stevedore_s eyes gleams through the shadow of his rakish hat brim in a way that underscores the insouciance of the dangling cigarette. The life in the grimy black on his face brings a lump to my throat. No doubt the vintage paper has something to do with the life of the reproductions. Printed in Italy, the duotone printing here retains the creamy tone of Evans’ vintage gelatin silver originals. There used to be a wider selection of papers with different base tones and surfaces. When the price of silver skyrocketed in the 1970’s, the paper and film manufacturers immediately reduced the amount of silver in all their products. Most of the new photographic papers have a bright white base. Some of them are more forgiving when you’re trying to make a decent print from a bad negative, but the reduction in silver has killed most of the depth. The results can be pretty disappointing.

Walker Evans was born in 1903. He grew up in a small town in Illinois where he had fairly privileged background. As a very well read Francophile, he went to Paris in the twenties. He stayed there about a year with the intention of becoming a writer. While in Europe, he avoided most of the ex-patriots because he was, in his own words, “bitterly anti-American” and didn’t want to be part of any movement or dogma. Back in New York in 1930, Evans abandoned writing for photography. He said, “I just caught it, like a disease.” He quickly made some important connections, most notably Lincoln Kirstein, the man who brought the Ballet Russes to New York. He also made friends with photographer Berenice Abbott, who introduced him to the work of the recently deceased French photographer Eugne Atget. The unaffiliated Atget turned his camera toward the same storefronts and cultural details that fascinated Evans, producing an instant kinship. In fact, he was afraid to spend too much time studying Atget’s work. He needn’t have been afraid. He more or less picked up where Atget left off creating graphic, geometric, contrasty images of New York that perfectly suited the modern age. He eventually switched to color images, mostly Polaroid instant film. His work became increasingly spare and graphic just to the point where, if he took a step closer, it would have become abstract. He died in 1975. During my research, I happily stumbled upon Walker Evans (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000) in which there is a brilliant essay on Evans and the influence of Eugne Atget by Maria Morris Hambourg, one of the curators in the Photo Department at the Met. The wonderful plates span Evans entire career from the self-portraits he shot as a young man in Paris to the later Polaroids. A more comprehensive survey of Evans’ black and white work appears in Walker Evans First and Last (Harper and Row, 1978). It’s helpful to put his work in Cuba into the context of his entire oeuvre. If you’ve read the Agee book, it’s interesting to see not only the unpublished shots from their collaboration, but to see the shots Evan s took in the South on his own before and after. They include the black people, the nearby cities and environs that were ignored by Agee’s publishers.