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November 03, 2013

Walker Evans at 110

Posted by: Dave Ryman

Happy Birthday to Walker Evans, who was born on November 3rd, 1903. To celebrate, we have a guest post from Jerry Thompson, author of Why Photography Matters and was Evans's principle assistant for two years.

The great American photographer Walker Evans was born on November 3, 1903. After his death in 1975, critic Hilton Kramer called him one of the greatest artists of his generation. Kramer also observed that no other artist of Evans’s stature has been so widely misunderstood.  During his lifetime Evans was praised as a social reformer (which he was not) and criticized as a left-wing propagandist (which he also was not).  No less a critic than Clement Greenberg understood his chief virtue to lie in the literary understanding his pictures consistently invite; Janet Malcolm (in an unsigned note published in The New Yorker in 1973, a note greatly admired by Evans) read his work as metaphorical. Since his death, artists too young ever to have met him (as well as some art historians) routinely praise the visual form and strategies his pictures employ, and the breadth of subject-matter they embrace. Some consider Evans to have restructured our understanding of photography as radically as Cezanne changed the notion of what a painted picture could be.

Evans himself was, from first to last, consistently non-committal as to what his photographic accomplishment actually was. He brushed off direct questions by changing the subject, or by calling himself an artist to end the line of discussion.  He often characterized his picture-taking as a private matter, once (in a 1947 interview) comparing it to making love.  A reviewer of a recent show of his pictures at MoMA calls them “sharply opinionated,” but cites as evidence texts by Lincoln Kirstein and James Agee that accompanied his photographs in American Photographs and Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.  Each text presents a forceful reading of Evans’s pictures, but neither writer spoke for Evans. Evans made pictures able to carry the multiple meanings found in them by multiple critics. And, as Kramer pointed out, if the interpretations were flattering, Evans usually chose not to contradict them.

In the face of multiple interpretations, the fact remains that Evans’s pictures consistently direct the viewer’s attention to the things they show. It is impossible to know the reactions Evans would have had to the flowering of his wide reputation, to the place he has taken in art history, and to the high prices of his prints at auction, had he lived to see them.  Considering his skeptical temperament, one imagines he would surely be amused. Considering his wit and erudition, one imagines he might take pleasure in recalling words Hegel wrote in a private note. The great secret, the German idealist wrote, is that things are what they are.   

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