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The Great Voyeur

In an age of the artist-as-exhibitionist, Walker Evans was a voyeur, peering at the world through the curtains of his hooded eyes, then taking his devastating, disinterested, and transcendent pictures and slipping away. “Stare,” he once said, recalling lessons learned from the cafés of Paris in the 1920s. “It is the only way to educate your eye, and more. Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop…. I stare and stare at people, shamelessly.”

Or regarding the subway portraits taken in the late Thirties with a camera hidden under his overcoat, he described himself as “a spy and voyeur in the swaying seat.” And: “The guard is down and the mask is off: even more than when in lone bedrooms (where there are mirrors). People’s faces are in naked repose in the subway.”

He died in 1975, at the age of seventy-one. Since then, he has gone from being celebrated to being a near-celebrity, with a foot-high stack of biographies, memoirs, catalogs, correspondence, and reissues appearing along with shows in the last seven years; and now a retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art—Walker Evans —175 photographs along with cases of books, magazines, catalogs, and postcards from his archives.

Once, seeing his pictures was an oddly personal experience. Now, it’s part of a public spectacle as well. His pictures retain the intimacy of confidences—the subway portraits, the photographs of architecture, even the famous sharecropper pictures from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. But Evans the friendly voyeur is simultaneously a hero on exhibit with Ansel Adams or Alfred Stieglitz.

Better than oblivion: and ultimately, the pictures themselves will show whether they can survive installation in the pantheon of art history, museum shows, critical theory, and reports on auction prices. For now, this handsome Metropolitan show has done as little damage to them as possible. During the press preview, Evans’s images seemed aloof from any number of TV cameras and notepads. The pictures still glowed out of their own mysterious darkness—presented in warm, low-key vintage prints whose lighter tones have a sort of phosphorescence—remarkable but not bright. They still have what James Agee called, in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, “the cruel radiance of what is.” They remain unmediated.

In 1947, Evans told Time magazine: “I used to try to figure out precisely what I was seeing all the time, until I discovered I didn’t need to. If the thing is there, why, there it is.” So it is for Evans’s audience at the Met, in pictures from the clumsy 1920s snapshots in France and Italy to the last, failing SX-70 Polaroids of street signs and the girls he fell in love with.

You don’t look inside Walker Evans. He’s no expressionist, aesthetic ideologue, or preacher of neurotic victimhood. Instead, he stands aside to let you see what he sees through the window of his viewfinder. “Shhh, there it is,” he seems to say, with an authoritative elbow in your ribs.

In his text with Fortune magazine pictures taken through train windows: “Along the paths of railroads, the country is in semi-undress.” Or in a class at Washington’s Corcoran Gallery in 1972, he said that choice of subject didn’t matter much: “The subjects you choose are like sexual fetishes. Some people are attracted to feet. Of course, there’s nothing [inherently sexual] in feet.”

I was at the Corcoran that day, a reporter intimidated by Evans’s grand-old-man-hood and by my ignorance of any work he’d done since Let Us Now Praise Famous Men was published in 1941. The students slouched in the work-clothes smugness of the belief that they’d just won some sort of revolution. They seemed to resent his ancien régime ease and mystery.

Evans peered at them from the rumpled-tweed covert of his contradictions: a bohemian Anglophile who’d spent decades living in cold-water flats while wearing custom-made shirts and shoes from London; a social realist who despised politics; a perfectionist noted for his lassitude; a hater of poseurs who claimed descent from the Adamses; an upper-middle-class Midwesterner and adopted New Yorker who’d done his best work in the gritty cities and small towns of the ordinary man; a skirt-chasing misogynist; a great artist who spent twenty-two years working for Henry Luce at Time and Fortune; a then-sixty-eight-year-old member of the Century Club with conspicuous tastes in pornography and marijuana; a Proustian who hated nostalgia.

There’s a good photograph here,” he said to the students, who in the fashion of the day wore 35mm cameras as fashion accessories as well as tools. “One of you should come up here and take a picture of all you people sitting there.” Was he challenging them? Was he hiding behind an imaginary camera? No one came up.

I’ve been around a good many years, I’ve seen it all,” he said. “So instead of giving you some kind of lecture, I’d rather let you ask me questions. I gather you all want to be artists.”

The students lounged in silence. Faculty and fans had to provide questions. Evans answered with fatigued iconoclasm. He drank tea from a Thermos he carried in his right sport-coat pocket, and nibbled at chocolate from the left—a small, frail, ironic man who in spite of his nice clothes and fame, had an aura of shabbiness—was it his failing health? His tendency to use words like “beauty”?

One minute he didn’t say the word as much as he dislodged it from his lip like a flake of tobacco. Then he talked about what may be his most famous picture, “Alabama Tenant Farmer Wife,” of Allie Mae Burroughs standing gaunt and wary against dry clapboard. He said: “That face immediately is very American, very expressive of beautiful and noble character. I like the lighting and composition and style, too. There’s a directness and simplicity. I find it beautiful. It has grown on me.” One by one the students left the room.

Times had changed. They looked for themselves in mirrors, and Evans had spent his life looking through windows in a time that valued feelings less than experience—Paris, Cuba, the South Seas, sharecropper squalor, reading Baudelaire, translating Blaise Cendrars, maintaining a casual menagerie of girlfriends, perhaps even dabbling in homosexuality, if John Cheever is serious in his claim that Evans se-duced him; and in middle age strut-ting around Fortune magazine like “a cross between a stork and a Prussian soldier,” in the words of a fellow worker quoted in Belinda Rathbone’s biography.*

Maybe his older-generation modesty baffled students hoping to be public exhibits like Andy Warhol, Richard Avedon, or Annie Leibovitz, who had become celebrities by portraying celebrities. (“Photographically speaking the face of a celebrity is a cliché,” Evans once said.) “Do you think they got anything out of it?” he asked me.

I asked why he’d never photographed the country-club crowd he’d grown up with. He said he didn’t like those people. How ironic, I said—I was trying to goad him out of his taciturnity—those were the very people who had come to admire his Resettlement Administration photographs from his great period in the middle 1930s. They liked the classical proportions. The rectitude of those gaunt faces framed by light-struck walls appealed to their sense of taste.

Taste!” he snapped, in an instant rage. “Taste!” Why did the word “taste” bother him so? “People taste because they don’t know,” he said.

He opened a portfolio that in-cluded the astonishing pictures of women shoppers on Randolph Street in Chicago. These pictures foreshadowed the work of Diane Arbus, Rob-ert Frank, Lee Friedlander, and Garry Winogrand, and took Evans’s documentary style even further into pure revelation, into simply feeding what he called his “hungry eye.” While I looked at them, he seemed oddly vulnerable, as if my response mattered.

In months to come I wondered exactly what he meant by taste. At first I suspected that he was trying to teach the difference between taste and style. Then I hypothesized that the difference was between taste and truth. Not an all-explaining religious truth, but the sidewalk revelation of a black woman in a fur-trimmed coat standing beside subway stairs in 42d St. Or Torn Movie Poster, with its modernist flatness and aesthetic layerings of advertisement, art, relic, and photograph. Or the monumental Main Street, Saratoga Springs, New York, shot from a window on a rainy day of black trees, streets, and parked cars amid nineteenth-century buildings.

Then—such are the rewards of looking into Evans—I discovered that his angry dichotomy of “taste” and “know” was only a ploy of the moment. Evans often and approvingly used the word “taste.” In a memo written at Fortune in 1948, Evans wrote: “Almost everybody likes a show of knowing taste—people learn something from it. Is there a greater pleasure?” His show at Yale in 1971 was originally titled “Walker Evans: An Anthology of Taste.”

His friend Hart Crane, whose poem The Bridge was illustrated with early Evans photographs of the Brooklyn Bridge, liked to talk about an “aristocracy of taste” so refined that it could be comfortable savoring the bumptious squalor and accidental glories of American life. This sort of taste may have been what led Evans to joke later on that he was the father of pop art. It also prefigured the celebration of the vernacular by architects, artists, cultural historians, and critics.

A cultural historian named Michael Lesy, best known for his book Wisconsin Death Trip, knew Evans at Yale, where Evans joined the faculty on retiring from Fortune in 1965. Lesy recalls: “We were all looking at ordinary objects as things that were full of virtue, as things that were not coarse or common but were possibly transcendental—and certainly revelatory.”

I was not the only person to be startled by contradiction and complication. In The Last Years of Walker Evans, Jerry L. Thompson, one of Evans’s students and assistants at Yale, writes:

I had expected Evans to be a good, straightforward, conscientious worker, a diligent contributor to the great mass of Truth accumulated in Art. I found instead a dandy, a courtier whose behavior with women Stendhal would have recognized and approved. He was brilliant, clever, vain, funny, often wicked, charming, and usually a lot of fun to be around. His spirit was not tidy, but it was large…. He was not a seeker of truth so much as a lover of paradox and irony, and a connoisseur of the bon mot.

Irony is used a lot to describe Evans’s work. Yes, Evans juxtaposes contradictions of words and objects, glories and ruins, religion and despair. His serial pictures—a photo-store ad with endless tiny portraits, or his Detroit factory workers passing him on the sidewalk—point to technology’s iron-ic dehumanization of humanity. And his voyeuristic detachment and coolness partake of a tradition of literary irony that became an American reflex with Mark Twain and continued through Ring Lardner to a generation of postmodernists.

In the show’s excellent catalog, for instance, there’s his Greek Temple Building that had once been a bank with classical columns and capitals standing as signs of probity. Then the bank failed and the building turned into a sign shop, with the word “Signs” painted as the sign of a sign shop behind the symbolic columns. Evans liked this sort of bitter pun.

He loved taking pictures of signs, billboards, posters, advertisements, and architecture whose form advertised its contents. Throughout his work there are layers on layers of words, symbols, facts, architectural decorations, and clothing styles mixing with abstractions of composition and documents of decay. He could think about the visual world as the literature he’d forsaken in his late twenties.

In Evans, the world can have the flatness of words on a printed page, as if reality were a sort of language speaking to him—a notion that post-modern ironists might welcome. But if irony as we practice it today is to be more than a pun or a juxtaposition of signs in Evans, it has to point to something—some forsaken good, some corroding evil.

What? Name a crusade for either by educated cultural and political types, and Evans despised it. He wrote in a letter: “The kind of minority I belong to would like to see the goddamned thing sink. Even before the depression I had lost faith in the whole show and have never been able to work for it.” And in his diary: “Hell with liberals, intellectuals, artists, communists. Human society is a failure.”

In 1937, after his work for the New Deal, and before a big show at the Museum of Modern Art in 1938, Evans wrote a list for James Agee, titled “contempt for.” The list, which appears in Unclassified: A Walker Evans Anthology, included

gourmets, liberals, cultivated women…; journalism, new dealers, readers of the New Yorker;… the public;… art in America, the artist of America, the art lovers of America, the art patrons of America, the art museums of America, the art directors of America, the wivwes [sic] and mistresses and paramours of the artists of America; the etchings and the christmas cards and the woodcuts and the paintings and the letters and the memoirs and the talk and the beards or the cleanshaven faces of the artists of America.

The son of an advertising executive divorced from Evans’s mother, he had to go to three boarding schools, rebelling much of the way, before he graduated from Andover. He ignored the curriculum at Williams in favor of reading Eliot and Joyce, and left after a year. He spent time admiring his heroes in Paris cafes, but eschewed introductions. Later, he insisted that his New Deal work be free from politics. At Fortune, he turned down a window office in favor of a broom closet.

Evans rewards caution in thinking about him. The problem is that he demands boldness in looking at his work. There it is, after all, a junked-car landscape, a circus billboard, or the Citizen in Downtown Havana, in the flâneur elegance of his white suit and boater. Such a pleasure to look at, Evans’s composition being a suspended and a resolved chord at the same time.

Or the subway pictures, the epitome of voyeuristic staring at the nakedness of poseless, ordinary people. In the dreary low-light subways of 1938, Evans found composition where he could, cropping and sometimes combining prints to provide halvings and trinings of flat surfaces into an Apollonian calm that says that order lurks behind all these faces lost in the oblivion of their private lives. Or the tool pictures in Fortune—tin snips, a monkey wrench that seem to be dreams of what the tools felt like in your hand.

August Sander set out to define the German nation by showing us his huge range of portraits, and Diane Arbus—who was encouraged by Evans—shows us ordinary folk in order to confront us with solipsistic sainthood-through-art, hers and ours. But Evans just shows us people on the subway, symbols of nothing but themselves and proof of our own consciousness of them. They’re real sixty years later, potent as Banquo’s ghost, shockingly new like so many of Evans’s pictures, even the pictures of Civil War monuments, movie posters, or electric signs.

Even—and most conspicuously—of museum statuary: in 1935, Evans was hired to take 477 photographs of sculptures in a Museum of Modern Art show called African Negro Art. Now, in a first-floor show accompanying the retrospective, the Metropolitan has put up fifty of the prints, along with some of the sculptures. There’s a truth about Evans to be learned here: he had the knack of seeing life in things when others could not.

The sculptures themselves—for all their influence on modern art, for all their craft—sit there like artifacts of a culture of animism that is lost to us. Evans was careful with these pictures—he’d move his lights on a track during long exposures to even out the shadows. So the shadows and highlights that remain are intentional—like the highlights on a female figure from the Bamana tribe of Mali. He gives her a forward tilt, too, as if she’s about to walk, and the soft shadow behind her makes her seem to have traveled some distance. He brings her alive—shows a soul or spirit in her. The sculpture itself looks dead by comparison.

Like Brassaï and Atget, Evans saw the life in lifeless objects and tired, preoccupied people—moldering plantations, subway passengers, gutter debris, and statues. Animism—seeing the living spirit of things—is something we’ve destroyed for ourselves with science, and what we mourn with our irony and alienation. Evans restores it.

  1. *

    Belinda Rathbone, Walker Evans (Houghton Mifflin, 1995).

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