Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Walker Evans and Johannes Vermeer Walk Into a Bar

Self Portrait, 1937, by Walker Evans.

“There is nothing as mysterious as a fact clearly described.” – Garry Winogrand

The eye of Walker Evans is to the camera what the eye of Johannes Vermeer was to a canvas. Every image they both made is the embodied meaning of a moment in everyday life. Evans may also be the most influential photographic artist of the 20th century, a visionary genius whose unique way of revealing the shadowy substance beneath the surfaces we take for granted has inspired every other photographer since, whether or not they even know his name. I strongly suspect that he was our Vermeer.

Like most people who have developed a deep appreciation for his masterful photographs, I first encountered him while reading James Agee’s book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. The curious collision between the agile dissonance of Agee’s poetic prose and the sedate elegance of Evans’ stately imagery, ostensibly designed to illustrate the 1936 text on the American South during the Great Depression, has remained just as powerful after decades. The word "indelible" is not an exaggeration when we apply it to Evans, who lived from 1903 to 1975.

But it was the edgy and almost esoteric naturalness of Evans’ images in a second book collaboration in 1938, Many Are Called, which provided the mind-expanding proof that Evans was operating in an aesthetic theatre almost 50 years ahead of his time. He concealed his camera while riding the New York subways and kidnapped fugitive images of people unaware of his voyeur’s task, prophetically prefiguring the loose style and spontaneous sensibility of Garry Winogrand in the 70’s and Nan Goldin in the 80’s.

Both these bodies of his work, along with a diverse range of his many other obsessions, are included in the Vancouver Art Gallery’s exhilarating survey exhibition on Walker Evans called Depth of Field. (The exhibition opened on October 29th and closes this Sunday.) The most comprehensive and lengthy gaze into Evans’ pictorial soul ever mounted in Canada, the show features over 180 black and white and colour prints from the 1920’s to the 1970’s, including his iconic images of the South for Agee’s books, and it clearly demonstrates how and why Evans can easily be considered the creator of an idiom which today we usually refer to as documentary photography.

South Carolina, 1936, by Walker Evans.

What he invented, of course, is often rightly called a lyrical documentary style: a humanist sensibility both elegant and idiosyncratic in its approach to capturing moments in our history which might best be described as meticulously transcribed evidence of the existentially unknown hiding in plain sight. He radically extended an approach first championed by Eugene Atget, Cartier-Bresson and Lisette Model in Europe and transplanted its ethos to his beloved and bedeviled America, a continent which Agee once characterized as “an open palm spread frank before the sky,” where he was totally committed to being both in tune with his own times and prepared to break with tradition.

The collaborative curatorial team, made up of partners from the Josef Albers Museum in Bottrop and the High Museum in Atlanta, along with the Vancouver Gallery, have accurately assessed his vast importance and suitably contextualized his amazing multiple bodies of work as having “a powerful personal perspective fused with a rigorously detailed depiction of time and place.” An apt description: he virtually unearthed what was lurking beneath the surface of faces, places, buildings, landscapes, streets, bodies and objects, practicing a dark visual poetry potent with some intensely ironic and enigmatic otherworldly normalcy. His photographs are practically mystical emblems of that enigma.

Depth of Field (the optimum distance at which both the nearest and furthest objects are in focus for the camera lens), at first a seemingly a pedestrian title for a photography exhibition, suddenly becomes quite profound in the context of a major survey of the work of Walker Evans. His work was a paradoxical merger between the extremely intimate and private moments of everyday life and the large-scale aerial view of an entire public culture as a whole. The quotidian events and personal environments of American life are examined in a micro-manner, while the social and political forces that formed them are examined in a macro-manner.

Roadside Stand, Birmingham, Alabama, 1936 by Walker Evans.

Indeed, his lengthy and influential career is in many respects a macroscope of contemporary life in America. The America depicted in Evans’ iconic bodies of work (especially those in his third classic book, American Photographs) is not the America of today. However, his prescient vision and stylistic innovations make his visual content especially pertinent to our contemporary social climate, and his insights into social and political life -resonate in a powerful way with today’s multiple media platforms. Evans broke down barriers of conceptual content in such a dramatic fashion that his work can be seen as almost prophetic in terms of pop culture content and even the rapid, off-the-cuff format of Instagram’s vernacular.

Even though everyday life in his modernist’s America has been forever altered by its postmodern participation in social media and alternative cultural industry distribution systems, his remarkable gift for transcending genre and embracing the ephemeral, the commercial and even the kitsch aspects of middle-class life makes him permanently topical and mesmerizingly today. Some of his commercial sign images even seem to say tomorrow.

Torn Movie Poster, 1931, by Walker Evans.
Evans is also the transitional historic link between the formal styles of Stieglitz, Steichen, Strand, and Weston’s pictorial approach, and the pop lingo of Frank, Friedlander, Erwitt and Arbus. Indeed, Evans is often credited for making the remark, only only half-jokingly, during the pop ascendancy of Andy Warhol, that it was actually he, Evans, who invented pop art as early as 1930. As a critic, I would tend to agree with him wholeheartedly. Just glance at his Torn Movie Poster, from 1931, then try to look away.

Indeed, his astonishingly prescient image, Penny Picture Display Savannah, 1936, in which a radical appropriation of storefront commercial portraits is overlaid with text, lends fresh credence to my contention that, conceptually speaking, Evans actually invented the ethereal disposal qualities of a visual social media almost 75 years before it entered the public domain. He was also one of the first artists to embrace the instantaneous qualities of Polaroids, long before most other practitioners realized their aesthetic potential.

Evans was also an early advocate for breaking down archaic cultural industry formulae and demanding an almost otherworldly immediacy of his images: in 1971, he declared, “The street becomes your museum. The museum itself is bad for you. You don’t want your work to spring from art; you want it to commence from life, and that’s in the street now.” The history of photography, and indeed the museum of the street itself, have both been very good to Walker Evans. And as Winogrand’s observation so astutely pointed out, that is just what Evans has left us with: facts so clearly described, and yet so utterly mysterious.

– Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films. He has been the Executive Director of both the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada and The Ontario Association of Art Galleries. He is the author of the book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, and is a frequent curator of film programs for Cinematheque. His current work in progress is a new book called Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, being released by Backbeat Books in Spring 2018.

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