Sunday, August 9, 2009

Cold Comfort: Maggie Anderson's poems on the photography of Walker Evans

I keep coming back to the photographs of Walker Evans: Appalachia and the South, farms and farmers, steel mills, graveyards, signs, churches, small towns and main streets, living rooms and porches, New York City street scenes and subway riders. These are the same iconic subjects recurrent in my own writing. Well, not the New York City subway and street scenes. Except for a long ago train trip from Chicago to Boston that involved changing trains there, New York City is outside my experience. All I really know of it is what I’ve seen in photographs and movies and books.

In last week’s post, I mentioned Philip Gefter’s essay “Icons as Fact, Fiction and Metaphor” which explores the truthfulness of photographs. I’ve never questioned the truthfulness of Evans’ photographs or that they are purely documentary. In fact, a common criticism of Evans’ work is that it’s too clinical. However, in reading James R. Mellow’s biography Walker Evans, I came across some information about Evans’ approach to his subjects that made me uncomfortable. Walker Evans sometimes went to elaborate lengths to conceal his photographic intent.

For his New York City subway series, Evans used a concealed camera strapped on under his overcoat with the lens poking out between the front buttons and a cable release threaded down the sleeve to trip the shutter. He was also fond of using an angled viewfinder which enabled him to photograph someone who was standing on the periphery. While it appeared to onlookers that Evans was photographing something in front of him, he was actually shooting in a different direction off to the side. To further his ruse, he often had a companion pretend to pose in front of the camera for the picture he wasn’t taking. I’m not quite sure why this bothers me since it ostensibly allowed him to document what was happening without altering or interfering with the scene – which is the key element of true documentary photography. As Gefter wrote, “As a witness to events, the photojournalist sets out to chronicle what happens in the world as it actually occurs. A cardinal rule of the profession is that the presence of the camera must not alter the situation being photographed.”

I’m beginning to question whether Evans’ camera actually did alter the scene. It’s the eyes of his subjects that unsettle me – their curiosity, the questioning stares. Were these people standing on the sidelines? Were they caught up in watching him at work, not realizing they were his subjects? Did the presence of the camera attract their attention, creating an odd twist to the observer vs. the observed?

In the summer of 1935, Evans spent several months photographing in West Virginia and Pennsylvania when he was one of the photographers working on the Farm Security Administration (FSA) project under Roy Stryker. Poet Maggie Anderson’s family was from Rowlesburg, WV, which is one of the towns Evans photographed. Anderson wrote a series of poems about Walker Evans and his West Virginia photographs, included in her 1986 poetry collection, Cold Comfort, which was published fifty years after Evans’ photographs.

Maggie Anderson was born in New York City where her parents worked as teachers, and every summer they traveled to West Virginia – home. In a wonderful interview with Kate Long for the radio series “In Their Own Country,” Anderson described these trips to West Virginia and how she felt freer in Rowlesburg where there were more outdoor places for a child to play than in New York City, and where she was surrounded by cousins and extended family. In response to a question in Kate Long’s interview about whether she “has it in for Walker Evans,” Anderson said, “I guess I sort of do have it in for him” but later goes on to say “he’s a wonderful photographer.” Maggie explained that there was something about Evans’ stance that made her feel protective of the people he photographed, and that Evans “couldn’t know them the way I did.” She emphasized that she wasn’t saying he didn’t have a right to make the photographs – just that he couldn’t possibly see or know those people as she does.

When asked if she’d like to look at and discuss some photographs for this blog article, Maggie respectfully declined, saying she preferred to let the poems speak for themselves and that she feels she’s said all she has to say about Evans’ photographs. I can certainly understand wanting to let the work speak for itself. They are strong and beautiful poems, the language as visual as any photograph, so that readers form their own idea of how the photograph looks.

My own feelings are somewhat mixed since I’ve stood on both sides of the camera, and for all I know I’ve been captured standing off to the side unaware as well. I understand a photographer wanting to document what he or she sees, and there could be an argument made that the angled viewfinder allowed Evans to make a purely documentary image. I see nothing wrong with shooting from the hip in a public place. It’s the elaborate subterfuge Evans employed that bothers me, and I’m not sure that the resulting images weren’t influenced by the presence of the camera in a different way. In some cases it may be that the intent and curious expressions on the faces of his subjects are because they are watching the photographer with interest, thinking they are watching him take a photograph of someone or something else.

If the people and places Evans had photographed were of my own family and home, I would feel protective of them too. But, there’s just enough distance for me to appreciate Evans’ photographs because they are of another place, of other people – even though those people are very much like the people and place where I come from. Distance equals comfort. And Evans pierced the comfort zone of the people in the West Virginia towns of Rowlesburg, Terra Alta, Morgantown, and Reedsville.

For me, it’s an interesting juxtaposition of work by two artists I admire. Walker Evans’ photographs show the outer experience, a limitation of the photographic art form by its nature. Maggie Anderson’s poetry peels back the exterior to reveal the emotional interior of personal territory in a way that language does best. While I still regard Evans’ photographs with great admiration, Anderson’s poetry alters the distance with which I now view them.

Photo Credits:

Top: “Main Street, Morgantown, West Virginia” by Walker Evans. FSA, Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-34376.

Bottom: “Independence Day, Terra Alta, West Virginia” by Walker Evans. FSA, Library of Congress, LC-USF3301-009002-M1.


Susan O'Doherty said...

Dory, thanks so much for this thoughtful piece. I am also disturbed by Evans's possible subterfuge. Yet as writers we "steal" material all the time from people who have no idea that we're observing them. Lots to think about.

Dory Adams said...

Hi Sue, thanks for opening up this line of thought. I agree absolutely that we writers do this, and I think many writers struggle with trying to determine how much to reveal (about others and even themselves) in their work.

Lauren B. Davis said...

You raise an interesting point about the subterfuge. My husband is a photographer (amateur – bidness guy by day) and I admit to having been the photographic ‘beard’ a time or two, while he actually focused on someone to my left or right. I suspect I justify it because I see the compassion in my husband’s vision, as I do in Evans. Were the photos mocking or heart-hearted in any way, I would be more disturbed, but you’ve certainly given me food for thought.

Dory Adams said...

Hi Lauren, you make an important point here about compassionate vision. Thank you for adding this to the discussion. You've given me more to think about, too.