Photographic Memory

Looking back shows us how we look today.

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Sometimes, when you really want to know what America is all about, you have to go to Belgium. Or so it would seem at the “American Documents” show at Antwerp’s FotoMuseum (FoMu). The star of the show is Walker Evans. You’re not going to get a whole lot of dissenters if you claim that American photography is dominated by the figure of Walker Evans.

  • “American Documents” Through September 5. FotoMuseum, Antwerp.

Evans got his start working for the government. The Great Depression was on and the WPA was in full swing. The Farm Security Administration was looking, in particular, for photographic documentation of what the Depression was doing to the American farmer. Fortune magazine was interested in the same thing and, famously, notoriously, sent the writer and critic James Agee along with Walker Evans to produce a text with photographs. Fortune killed the story but it survived as the now iconic piece of work Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.

While Agee’s text focused on the misery, it has often been remarked that Evans’ photographs, bleak as they are, also capture something noble and unbowed in the individual faces he captured on film. Susan Sontag picked up on this fact in her own analysis of American photography from her classic work, On Photography. She saw a Whitman-esque spirit in Evan’s photography, a deeply democratic viewpoint that allowed each object, each person, to express the dignity of his own specific existence. She wrote, “American photography has moved from affirmation to erosion to, finally, a parody of Whitman’s program. In this history the most edifying figure is Walker Evans. He was the last great photographer to work seriously and assuredly in a mood deriving from Whitman’s euphoric humanism.” This Whitman-style exuberance was doomed to be shattered on the rocks of actual historical experience, thought Sontag. The happy American is also the childlike American. Whitman himself may have been special; he could sing the body electric all night long and still be humming the tune the next morning. The rest of us were not so lucky. The years pile up and do their dirty work.

Sontag again:

Succeeding the more buoyant hopes for America has come a bitter, sad embrace of experience… Stieglitz, using photography to challenge the materialist civilization, was, in Rosenfeld’s words, ‘the man who believed that a spiritual America existed somewhere, that America was not the grave of the Occident.’ The implicit intent of Frank and Arbus, and of many of their contemporaries and juniors, is to show that America is the grave of the Occident.

The show in Antwerp, tells a story that Sontag would have immediately understood. The farm administration works of Walker Evans lead immediately to the portraits of Robert Frank, whose The Americans pays direct homage to Walker Evans. Looking at Frank right after Evans makes clear the dissolution of optimism that Sontag was talking about. Frank’s photographs have all the snapshot immediacy of Evans, the shock of recognition that comes with looking at a photograph and feeling that you are meeting someone as they really are. But the mood of that meeting has become ever more tinged with sadness, with the sense that every person carries with them the essential disappointment at the core of life: I am not, in reality, what I once dreamed I could be.

That story, told in lonely faces and disconnected scenes of the interiors and exteriors of daily life, is taken up by photographer after photographer in the show. The last grains of hope — if they ever even existed in the Evans’ photographs — are fully squeezed out and left draining down the kitchen sink by the time we get to Diane Arbus and Martha Rossler’s photographs at the end of the show.

Walking through the show the second time, though, I began to feel the arbitrariness of it all. Along with Sontag and the organizers of “American Documents,” we tend to see this strain of American photography as a rising tide of brutal truth telling. Walker Evans leads the parade simply because he had the courage to show us Americans as they really lived, Americans walking to work lonely, vulnerable, without the inner illumination of the American Dream dancing across their features at every moment.

But it all came about, we must admit, through a series of accidents. Were it not for the Great Depression and Roosevelt’s public works initiatives, it is unlikely that Evans would have been trying to figure out how to document the individual lives of American workers. He would not have set up those cameras in public places, grabbing shots of people caught in their own private thoughts. When he did, he had the brains to realize that he had stumbled upon something special. The strength of the pictures was exactly in the way he had captured the private in the public and vice versa. The grammar for a new type of photography was beginning to emerge.

Largely, it was about framing people in non-frames. That is to say, the people in the “Labor Anonymous” photos of the mid-1940s are generally walking past the camera. They are looking somewhere else and, if they happen to look directly into the camera, it is happening in the moment before they actually realize that is what they are doing. They are truly anonymous in that Evans has not given these people the time or the awareness to present themselves. Whether or not this is their “true selves” is another question. What it certainly captured was a viewpoint on human beings that was startling and fresh. Those pictures made us look at people in moments we don’t otherwise notice, precisely because they are the moments that are not presented as noticeable. Evans’ real genius was in noticing the un-noticeables, and then in setting up a procedure and a style to get that on film.

You could say that Walker Evans taught us a new way of looking. He certainly taught photography a new way of looking. Robert Frank picked up the new style with ease; he had it in his bones. The history of American photography since the 1940s can be told, in part, as the story of “getting it,” getting what Evans was looking at and applying that grammar of looking to whatever you like. Robert Adams in Our Lives and Our Children applies the look to Americans in the 1980s, in the public spaces where we do semi-private family things. Lewis Baltz, in the 1970s, realized that you could take Walker Evans’ way of looking at people and look at urban spaces the same way. You simply needed to focus on spots that weren’t presenting themselves as spots, frame the mundane bric-a-brac of urban life. His photograph “Santa Cruz” from 1970 is of a wall caught just as unaware as any of Evans’ anonymous workers. Larry Sultan does it with nature. Nature doesn’t always have her face on, isn’t always presenting Ansel Adams grandiosity to the creatures looking on below. Sultan’s photo Antioch Creek is nature pooped out, the tree that is its centerpiece is in that awkward stage of having bloomed and not yet having fully shed the flowers.

Henry Wessel did the Walker Evans look on homes where, in a shot like “New Mexico” (1969), he shows us how psychically small and unprepared for their task are the structures we make for living. Lee Friedlander does Walker Evans with the car, taking the automobile as both subject and framing device for other subjects in a series of snapshots on an American road trip. In “Colorado,” we see a roadside bait shop as the car sees it, broken up by side and front windows, the open road behind reflected in the sideview mirror. Time (present, past, and future) and space (here and there) are all jumbled up into one fragmented and confused experience. The anonymous worker has become the anonymous automobile.

I’ve no doubt that the grammar of looking that Walker Evans created caught on because it is powerful and real. Those images of people and things caught unaware, caught simply being themselves in moments that would otherwise have been unobserved are, inherently, both arresting and sad. They make perfect photographs because they are simple and deep all at once, the depth is right there on the surface. There is thus, no question that Walker Evans discovered something important about what photography can do, which American photographers have been running with ever since. The grammar, though, is structuring reality as much as it is recording it. Evans — and the photographers who learned from him — have thus been creating the American image all along. They have taught us how to look at ourselves and at others. They set up a structure, which we have all been complicit in recreating through our own acts of looking. Like all documents, I suppose, these “American Documents” tell us who to be as much as they reflect who we already are. They are informing documents as much as they are informed. They’ve acted upon us and they are acting still, even far away in distant lands like Belgium where the subtle eye of Walker Evans lives to this day, ever looking. • 23 June 2010

Morgan Meis has a PhD in Philosophy and is a founding member of Flux Factory, an arts collective in New York. He has written for n+1, The Believer, Harper’s Magazine, and The Virginia Quarterly Review. He won the Whiting Award in 2013. Morgan is also an editor at 3 Quarks Daily, and a winner of a Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers grant. A book of Morgan’s selected essays can be found here. He can be reached at morganmeis@gmail.com.

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