Intricacies of the Art
The Presence of Walker Evans at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boylston St Boston through September 3
ATTENDING A RETROSPECTIVE of an artist's work has a similar appeal as seeing old movies over and over again. You go to quell your nostalgic urges, to see your time - honored favorites, whether it be the joy of watching Dorothy prance down the Yellow Brick Road for the umpteenth time or the sight of a particular Monet haystack. For the most part, however, new ideas are rarely perceived; you end up looking for your special favorites and tend to ignore the rest. Whatever insights are made usually concern the philosophy of nostalgia rather than revelations about the subject concerned. Such would be the case for the retrospective show of photographer Walker Evans' work, currently on display at the Institute of Contemporary Art, had it not been ingeniously paired with another photography show entitled "The Presence of Walker Evans."
The work of eight photographers is displayed in this exhibit, including such well- known names as Diane Arbus, Robert Frank, and Lee Friedlander. All met with Evans at a time important in the development of their work. Recognizing their talents and interests from the start, Evans worked with them in the role of teacher and coleague. With the exception of the younger artists, he selected them to be in the anthology Quality: Its Image in the Arts, published in 1969.
Although each artist has been individually acclaimed on the merit of his or her own work, the Evans influence is unmistakable, especially when there is such close available comparison. This is not to say, however, that while influenced by the same man, the photographers appear in any way related to one another. Arbus's portraits of human oddities bear little resemblance to Alston Purvis' color details of plain doorways and windows other than the similar oblong shape of their frames. As the catalogue to the exhibit states, "Each one saw a slightly different side to the man, and Evans was a master at revealing different qualities to different people." The key to the success of these two shows lies in their inescapably intertwined relationship. The juxtaposition of Evans' work with these eight contemporary photographers gives the viewer a base from which to begin evaluating their work and, at the same time, stimulates new thoughts about Evans' photographs.
Evans truly deserves the title of the world's first modernist photographer. That is, he was the first photographer to break away from the impressionistic, pictorial vision of his predecessor, Alfred Stieglitz. While Stieglitz captured the more romantic-- misty weather scenes and soft focus portraits-- with an emphasis on mood, Evans tried to focus on a clarity and cleansing of the photographic medium, engaging in a kind of anti-art campaign. He labeled Stieglitz's art as "veritably screaming aestheticism." His photographs are straightforward views of everyday people in ordinary settings and the objects of their contemporary living.
THE PHOTOGRAPHS in the Evans retrospective indicate the immense diversity of his work. His many projects include studies of the New York subways, tenant farmers during the Depression (Let us Now Praise Famous Men], Chicago streets. Coney Island, Victorian architecture, Cuban scenes and hundreds of photographs documenting roadside stands, interiors and corners of rooms. In his essay "The Artist of the Real," Alan Trachtenberg suggests Evans' work was inspired not by painters or by other artists, but by literature, the writings of Flaubert, Proust, Joyce, Whitman and Henry James. "He arrived at his proper point of view through the spirit of objective realism, aesthetic autonomy, respect for feeling and epiphany in common life, that he found in their writings." Evans claimed he saw in himself the combination of two people, Parisian street photographer Atget and Civil War photographer and historian Matthew Brady. In fusing these roles Evans became a kind of historian of society, recording the social "facts" of his environment. He created an independant vision in which everything was concrete and lucidly described, yet at the same time remained indefinite, almost mystical in quality. Evans' photographs give their meanings in a manner which is utterly clear, yet still mystic and intensely complex; they suggest rather than tell the stories behind them.
Although Evans disliked the role of the almighty teacher and prophet, he understood the young artist's need for contact with an accomplished artist; he hoped their interaction with him might eventually lead them to some kind of independent vision. His influence on Alston Purvis (a former student of his at Yale) John Szarkowski and William Christenberry is obvious. There exists a common interest toward the inanimate, the objects and architecture of our environment. Purvis' color photographs mostly detail windows and doorways and explore the play of light in them. He exhibits the same fascination Evans does for the seemingly insignificant. Christenberry also becomes absorbed in Evans' attraction for objects; the descendance is conspicuous in his straight - on portraits of country buildings and graveyards. The examination of some of the other photographers displayed, however, in particular Arbus, Friedlander, Levitt and Frank, requires a more involved exploration of the man and the intricacies of his art.
ONEELEMENT INTRINSIC to the Evans style is his awareness of and desire to give a dignity and significance to even the most commonplace. The view of the dilapidated interior of a sharecropper's shack is rendered with a clear rectilinear organization of forms and the delicate play of the patterns of natural light. There is no question of the respect Evans feels for his subjects; neither people nor objects are manipulated or abused. Diane Arbus clearly shares this same respect in her portraits of New York city eccentrics. In the portrait "Teenage Couple on Hudson Street, N.Y., 1963," the people face the camera with little fear and outward emotion. This attitude unquestionably derives from previous Evans portraits. His people always show an awareness of the camera and of being photographed; the union of this cognizance and the deliberateness of his framing reveals the care with which he treats his subjects. Arbus' photographs, by the nature of her material, exhibit a kind of bizarre theatricality not found in Evans' portraits. She tends to tilt her camera frames backwards, thus eliminating the compositional integrity of Evans' photographs. Evans wrote in Quality: Its Image in the Arts, "Arbus' style is all her subject matter. Camera technique stops at simply automatic competence."
The lack of outward emotion in Evans' photographs becomes increasingly apparent when compared to the posed quality of Arbus' work. It appears that she must have agreed with the subjects beforehand that they remain emotionless in order to calm down their already screaming irregularity. Their faces look as if they are literally repressing the emotions they feel. Evans' subjects, however, appear as if they have come to their emotionless states purely by chance; it is as if he has caught them in a single moment before or after something has happened. Helen Levitt's high-spirited photographs of children in the over-crowded streets of New York City also point to the cool detachment and relative stillness of Evans' subjects. Her children either dance through the photographs with wild gestures and extreme expressions or stare soulfully out in an effort to grab the viewer's attention. Each individual picture is meant to bowl one over with its content; Levitt follows more in the tradition of social documentarists Lewis Hine and Jacob Riis in her approach. Evans' photographs work on a much more subtle plane. He prepares carefully planned sequences and hopes the effect of repeated exposures will work to move the viewer.
WHETHER PHOTOGRAPHING with a small, hidden camera on the New York subways or approaching women on Havana's streetcorners, Evans always gave his subjects the freedom and space to interact within their own environment. Levitt's lonely man watching TV on a streetcorner, Friedlander's self-portrait in a sleazy hotel room and Evans' dreaming sailor on the subway--these photographs succeed because of the seeker's sensitivity in approaching his subject. Just as Evans' sequence of closeups of miners' faces bespeaks the unjustified nature of their existence, Robert Frank's photograph of wealthy office seekers with their tall, black silk hats captures the utmost fatuousness of political figures. They are given enough room to express and be themselves, whatever their environment.
Walker Evans' photographs speak of an uncompromising vision of America. His Coney Island photographs express a kind of perversity in our country perhaps best compared to the social commentary of Frank and Friedlander. Some of, the Friedlander photographs displayed show pictures of people on TV and the eerie glow they cast upon their surrounding environment. Humans are deliberately missing, yet they seem all the more present by their absence. Perhaps Frank's photographs represent the most powerful photographic view of America. The symbol of the American flag occurs repeatedly in his work; his photograph of the women and child in a car at the side of a highway expresses the "haunted" quality of America, its vast space and extremes--of hot and cold, of violence, exhaustion and pity. While Evans' photographs sometimes speak less forcefully than Franks', the message in the retrospective and in his book American Photographs is clear. As Trachtenberg concludes, "Each picture completes itself only in the complete work, which in turn reflects not only upon 'America' in a state of upheaval, but upon the art of representation itself...the theme is survival, and constructive seeing the means."