Walker Evans

Posted on January 11, 2013

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Walker Evans was one of my key references for my Museum project. In my supporting text for this work I commented on Evans as follows:

“In the late 1930s Walker Evans made candid portraits of people on the New York subway. He later said that the Subway portraits were “[his] idea of what a portrait ought to be: anonymous and documentary and a straightforward picture of mankind.” (Walker Evans). Evans’s work combines a clear, factual gaze with empathy for his subject matter.”

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It is this idea that a portrait should combine a clear factual gaze with empathy for the subject which appeals to me about Evans’s work. I think that the reason why I find this approach compelling is because of my increasing distaste for and annoyance with portraiture in contemporary visual culture. It has always been the case that celebrity portraiture has been ‘doctored’ to flatter the famous. In today’s digital world however re-touching (and even remodelling)  is the norm. It is rare that one can look at a portrait, fashion or advertising image where one feels that the person represented truly looks as they appear in the photograph.

Why is this important to me? Well I guess it’s because I believe that photography’s great strength is that a photograph is both iconic  (the image resembles the referent) and indexical (there is a direct physical relationship between the referent and the photograph). For a photographic portrait to exist the subject must have been there in front of the camera and at that moment the portrait subject looked as they appear in the photograph…or did they?

Digital manipulation of portrait images these days seriously disrupts both the iconic and indexical value of the photographic image. These days it is not simply a matter of removing a few wrinkles and blemishes. Eyes are widened. Noses refined. Lips made more luscious. Necks made more elegant and so on.  The resulting portrait is nothing more than a fiction more akin to a painted portrait. Of course in history many of the most successful portrait painters have flattered their subjects.

Returning now to Walker Evans. Whilst Evans made portraits, he is perhaps best known for his photographs of the American urban landscape in the 1930s. In his supporting text for Evans’  American Photographs Lincoln Kernstein says  “The most characteristic single feature of Evans’ work is its purity…It is ‘straight’ photography not only in technique but in the rigorous directness of its way of looking.” (Evans 2012, pp 198) This is also the style he brought to his portraiture.

Perhaps Evans’ most well known portrait is the portrait he made of Alabama Farmer’s wife Allie Mae Burroughs see here. Evans made four exposures of Allie Mae when making her portrait, two of  which have been published. The composition was identical for all of them. Allie Mae is pictured alone. The portrait  shows her head and shoulders. She is facing the viewer frontally. The lighting is plain. The background is plain wooden boarding. In one of the published photographs she is half smiling (American Photographs). In the other she has a sterner look (Let Us Now Praise Famous Men).

Allie Mae stares directly at the viewer and whilst her face bears the hallmarks of a hard life she carries herself with great dignity. As Lionel Trilling says “Mrs[Burroughs], with all her misery and perhaps with a touch of pity for herself, simply refuses to be an object of your “social consciousness”: she refuses to be an object at all – everything in the picture proclaims her to be all subject ”  (Thompson 2012, location 366 of 686). The truth is however that this portrait of Ellie Mae’s has now become an icon, representing Depression Era America.

Much has been said and written about the exploitation of people in distress by photographers, authors and the media generally. Such criticism could be levelled against Evans’ portrait. However, the portrait was made with Allie Mae’s full co-operation and in 1975 when was asked about the book Let Us Praise Famous Men, in which the picture appeared, she said  “…when I read it plum’  through I gave it back to her and I said, Ev’thing in there is true. What they wrote in there is true.” (Thompson 2012, location 444 of 686)

It is interesting to compare Evans’s portrait with  Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother  photograph which is probably even more well know. Jerry Thompson points out that  “Lange in particular was drawn to tableau-like configurations suggestive of a moving narrative…” (Thompson 2012, location 469 of 686). This is certainly evident in this photograph with the mother’s hand gesture, the children’s faces turned away and the baby in her lap.

Lange took 6 images, 5 of which I have located here.

Whereas Evans had known (and even stayed with Agee in the Burrough’s house) for some weeks, Lange came across her subject,Florence Owens Thompson, as she was driving by. It appears to me from the above series of photograph’s that Lange gradually approached the family and slowly directed the scene in front of her. She first photograph is shot from distance. The second the mother is accompanied only by her baby. By the final image the other two children are in the frame looking away and the composition has taken on a much more symbolic form. Is this great opportunistic photography or exploitation of a situation to create an image?

Personally I believe that Evans’ portrait is a more genuine representation of his subject, Allie Mae. I also feel that his approach was probably less exploitative and more collaborative. Lange’s portrait on the other hand is arguably more compelling and emotional.But is it an honest representation of her subject or a photographic representation constructed to convey a prescribed message.  I am sure there are many different views about this. Kathy Grove has suggested that these days the photographic artifice might have been taken one step further….

New Migrant Mother by Kathy Grove

New Migrant Mother by Kathy Grove

References

Agee J., Evans W. & Morrison B. (2006) Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (Penguin Modern Classics) [Paperback]  London: Penguin

Evans W. (2012) American Photographs (Seventy-Fifth-Aniversary Edition) New York: Museum of Modern Art

Evans W.  “Subway Passengers New York City”,  1 February -­‐ 14  May 2000,  Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Exhibitions,  Available from:   http://www.metmuseum.org/collections/search-­‐the-­‐collections/190011726?pkgids=131 [Accessed on 19th March 2012]

Thompson J. (2012) The Story of a Photograph Walker Evans, Ellie Mae Burroughs, and the Great Depression Now and Then Reader (Kindle Edition)

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