Thursday, February 10, 2011

Walker Evans’ Objective View of the World

A Brief Comparison with Dorothea Lange

Born with a silver spoon in his mouth, in St. Louis, Missouri, Walker (November 3, 1903 – April 10, 1975) graduated from Phillips Academy in Andover Massachusetts. He spent but one year in Williams College before taking off to spend a year in Paris. Upon his return to the states he settled into the “Avant-garde," dare I say homosexual underground New York City Arts crowd that included John Cheever, Hart Crane, Lincoln Kirstein and (John) Hanns Skolle. Skolle, undeservedly a lesser known artist, photographer and writer probably had the greatest influence on Evans' development. They were roommates from 1926 to 1934. In 1935 Evans and James Agee collaborated on the celebrated Let us Now Praise Famous Men, published in 1941. That book, originally to have been an article for Fortune Magazine, chronicled the lives of three poor sharecropper families. A detailed synopsis of that book can be found at the New York Times book reviews. Much of Evans most famous work was produced for the Farm Security Administration as part of a huge effort to document rural poverty during the 1930’s depression era. About 1000 of Evans' negatives are held in the public domain at the National Archives.

Walker Evans was a mentor to Helen Levitt (1938). In that year he also began taking photographs with a hidden camera in the New York subway. These were later collected and published (1966) under the title, Many Are Called. In 1945 Evans became a staff writer for Time Magazine, and the same year an editor for Fortune Magazine. In 1965 he began as professor of photography in Graphic Design at the Yale University School of Art and Architecture, today the Yale University School of Art.

The Museum of Modern Art staged a retrospective of his work in 1971 simply titled “Walker Evans.” Much of the work was done with an 8” x 10” format field camera, allowing him to photograph in great detail and with extraordinary depth of field. He was anxious to present his carefully composed image to the viewer for his/her own interpretation as opposed to investing it with his own worldview. A demonstration of Evans’ concern for objectivity is best served through a comparison of his photograph of Allie Mae Burroughs (1935 or 36) with Dorothea Lange’s photograph of a “Texas Migrant Worker” taken near Bakersfield, California in 1940.

"Allie Mae Burroughs," Walker Evans (1935 or 36) *

Texas Migrant Worker, Dorothea Lange (1941) *

The photo of Allie Mae is taken straight on, full view and frontal, while Lange’s photo shows the migrant worker’s figure turned to three-quarter view while the head, slightly tilted is turned toward the viewer at almost full view. The head in Lange’s photo is in full sun, shaded by a piece of stiff material that folds in angles instead of draping gently over the head. The pretty young woman gazes wistfully at us with full knowledge of her status in life visible in her sad eyes, while Allie Mae smiles at the camera, though her face, wrinkled and gaunt, presents the presence of poor nutrition to the viewer. Lange’s beauty is placed in the reverse position of Leonardo da Vinci’s enigmatic “Mona Lisa.” The plywood structure/trailer next to Lange’s figure is seen out of focus and in perspective creating strong oblique lines, while Evans’ picture plain is viewed straight on in extreme detail, perhaps ten degrees (at most) tilt counter clockwise from the horizontal. The splintered grain of weathered wood and dress pattern are heightened. Everything in Lange’s photograph conspires to create in us a sense of this sad woman’s status with a historical reference that fastens us to the Mona Lisa, an ordinary middle class woman of her time. The Postmodern gives the viewer; in this case yours truly, the right to make reference to the trope - “if but for (place in time and culture), there go I." Through this Postmodern device I (the viewer) become both Mona Lisa and migrant farm worker. Lange’s photo is extremely personal, on purpose, while Evans’ photo presents the image to us as hard reality, visual fact. Both are valid. However, it is necessary to demonstrate the ways both photographers view and understand their craft and the world around them. Finally, the comparison allows us to see Walker Evans, as he would have us see him, an impartial and objective reporter of the world

*Both Photographs are in the public domain, but were obtained through Wikipedia Encyclopedia,, 10:33 P. M. EST, Wednesday, February 9, 2011.

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