Walker Evans had a pure sense of vision. He looked at the world honestly, without embellishment. It is this lack of adornment that makes his photography so captivating. His understated engagement with world is seen in artists like William Eggleston, Lee Friedlander, Diane Arbus, and Bernd and Hilla Brecher who all used their lens to document one form or another with the same deliberate awareness.
Second Avenue Lunch/ Posed Portraits, New York, about 1933, Gelatin silver print
The complete lack of any shred of the self-conscious is why Walker Evans’ images have such memorable pathos and intriguing depth.
“Whether he is an artist or not, the photographer is a joyous sensualist, for the simple reason that the eye traffics in feelings, not in thoughts.” – Walker Evans
Floyd and Lucille Burroughs, Hale County, Alabama, 1936, Gelatin silver print
There is a simple grace to Floyd and Lucille Burroughs’ portrait that belies the subjects tattered clothing and barefoot nature of a sharecroppers front porch. The image does not feel unkempt, but rather is sense of pride and strength of a father and the shyness and curiosity girl. All of which is perfectly clear.
“The meaning of quality in photography’s best pictures lies written in the language of vision. That language is learned by chance, not system; …our overwhelming formal education deals in words, mathematical figures and methods of rational thought, not in images.” – Walker Evans
South Street, New York, 1932, Gelatin silver print
Today, digital photographers may grovel over the difference between crop sensors and full frame. The argument is funny when you take into account the sensors, (the size of the window that allows light into the camera) is a tiny fraction of the 8×10 camera that Walker Evans used for his work with the Farm Security Administration during the depression. The clarity and quality of light that a camera of this aperture achieves is simply astonishing nearly one hundred years later.
“Detachment, lack of sentimentality, originality, a lot of things that sound rather empty. I know what they mean. Let’s say, “visual impact” may not mean much to anybody. I could point it out though. I mean it’s a quality that something has or does not have. Coherence. Well, some things are weak, some things are strong…” – Walker Evans
Corrugated Tin Facade / Tin Building, Moundville, Alabama, 1936, Gelatin silver print
John Sarkowski, the great curator of photography at MoMA from 1962 to 1991, had a theory about photography. He expounded on this theory in the catalogue of the 1978 exhibition Mirrors and Windows . . .
The two creative motives that have been contrasted here are not discrete. Ultimately each of the pictures in this book is part of a single, complex, plastic tradition. Since the early days of that tradition, an interior debate has contested issues parallel to those illustrated here. The prejudices and inclinations expressed by the pictures in this book suggest positions that are familiar from older disputes. In terms of the best photography of a half-century ago, one might say that Alfred Stieglitz is the patron of the first half of this book and Eugène Atget of the second. In either case, what artist could want a more distinguished sponsor? The distance between them is to be measured not in terms of the relative force or originality of their work, but in terms of their conceptions of what a photograph is: is it a mirror, reflecting a portrait of the artist who made it, or a window, through which one might better know the world?
Walker Evans was most definitely a window, a perfectly clear window.
Political Poster, Massachussetts Village, 1929, Gelatin silver print
“Die knowing something. You’re not here long.” ― Walker Evans
All digital images courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.