Sunday, July 5, 2009

Walker Evans: The Language of the Image

I just finished reading Walker Evans, a biography of the photographer by James R. Mellow. I’ve always admired Evans’ photographs, but hadn’t known that he’d first wanted to become a writer and had tried writing short stories before turning his passion to photography. Evans believed in the photograph as story, and Mellow quotes him as saying, “Fine photography is literature, and it should be.”

Evans had a way of selecting and including details that told the viewer much within a single image. Some of his most famous images did not include people, but rather the objects they possessed. At first glance those images appear to be only of vacant rooms, but as your eye scans the frame much is revealed about the people who live there. Mellow observes that, “his photographs appear to be taken with a novelist’s eye” and the objects Evans chose to show us “define character and circumstances, time and place.”

While Evans supported himself with commercial work, most notably on staff at Fortune magazine, most of his work was documentary in style. He spent several years in the late 1930s and early 1940s photographing around the United States, particularly in Appalachia and the South, as one of the photographers working on a project supervised by Roy Stryker for the Farm Security Administration (FSA). He also worked with writer James Agee on the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a study of sharecropper families in the South.

I cannot look at Evans’ photographs of the tenant farmer families without thinking of my own paternal grandfather who lost his farm during the Great Depression. My grandfather was able to move his family to a farm in central Pennsylvania, where he worked the rest of his life as a tenant farmer for a landowner who operated several farms. My dad and his siblings spent most of their youth working on that farm, but in circumstances far better than that of the sharecropper families in Evans and Agee’s book. What strikes me about the portraits of the tenant farmers in Evans’ photographs is their stoic dignity in the face of tremendous hardship. Agee described Evans’ photographs as “the cruel radiance of what is.”

Evans and Agee considered their work to be an equal collaboration, with neither the words nor the images holding importance over the other. Mellow described this collaboration as a “dialogue” between the words and images. In the preface to Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Agee wrote: “The photographs are not illustrative. They, and the text, are coequal, mutually independent, and fully collaborative.”

Evans described his work as an attempt to capture “the American vernacular.” Recurring themes in his photographs include small towns and main streets, farms and farming families, steel mills, graveyards, and signs. In New York City, where he resided, he photographed urban street scenes and did a series on subway riders. “The American vernacular” seems to best describe this body of work, the phrase implying a melding of image and words. Evans photographs speak to us, and they tell us about ourselves.

Photograph credit: “Washstand in the dog run and kitchen of Floyd Burroughs’ cabin. Hale County, Alabama” by Walker Evans. FSA, Library of Congress, LC-USF342-008133.

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Updates and News

  • A big thank you to Diana Nelson Jones of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for showcasing last week’s “Hillside Houses” as a guest post titled “Unexpected Beauty” on her City Walkabout blog at the Post-Gazette online. I’ve added City Walkabout to my list of favorite blogs and websites on the sidebar at the right of the screen. Check it out.

  • Readers have been asking that I open the comments section, so I’m going to give that a try to see how it goes (since comments will be moderated, there will most likely be a delay before your comment can be posted). For those who want to contact me privately, there is an e-mail address on the sidebar where I can be reached.

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NOTE: There have been some technical difficulties with opening up the comments feature today. Hopefully this feature will be in operation soon.

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