DAMAGED: RUIN AND DECAY IN WALKER EVAN'S PHOTOGRAPHS

Presented at the Walker Evans: Reading the Magazine Work International Symposium at the Centre for Contemporary Photography, Melbourne 7 October 2016.

Abstract:

In an interview in 1974 Walker Evans described photography in terms of its illusive nature as “the thing itself is such a secret and so unapproachable.” He thought of his simple and straightforward photography as an “unconscious phenomenon” that culminated in an amazing accident that arose so convincingly to speak to a generation of Americans. This paper will explore his photographs that imaged the ruin and decay of everyday life in America and what he called the “aesthetically rejected subject.”


Walker evans, [Workers Loading Neon "Damaged" Sign into Truck, West Eleventh Street, New York City] 1928-30 Metropolitan museum of art, new york

Walker evans, [Workers Loading Neon "Damaged" Sign into Truck, West Eleventh Street, New York City] 1928-30 Metropolitan museum of art, new york

In 1943, Walker Evans reviewed a book by J.M. Richards titled The Bombed Buildings of Britain for Time magazine, remarking on the “peculiar aesthetic” of the “architecture of destruction,” a theme as David Campany notes, which is central to Evans’ photography.[1] This theme or interest of Evans was well established prior to this review in what I consider as a critique of the unravelling of American culture that so intrigued Evans in his quest for the “aesthetically rejected subject.”[2] He once postulated an aesthetic of the ruin and the rejected saying “A ruin is more interesting than a freshly completed building. It shows the effect of time and experience.”[3] Evans’ interest in ruin aesthetics found its way into photographs by way of the subject matter: debris, decay and the obsolete. For example, in the December 1930 issue of Creative Art, four photographs by Evans were published in a spread that celebrated the modern city, the first being this image of a giant electric sign ‘Damaged’ being loaded onto the back of a truck.[4] This simple sign and its rendition in this iconic photograph recalls Evans’ own thoughts on photography as an “unconscious phenomenon” that culminated in amazing accidents of composition. The photograph seems to portend the many photographs to come that image decaying towns, streets and the “appallingly damaged group of human beings” —as James Agee described the subjects of his project with Evans—titled Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.[5]

Evans’ almost forensic analysis of the everyday urban subject has much in common with Eugene Atget, the documenter of old Paris, much lauded by the surrealists for his uncanny photographs. A critic of the decadent and mysterious tricks of the avant-garde, Evans was drawn to Atget’s photographic renditions of the Parisian environs, for “his trained observation of it, special feeling for patina, [and] eye for revealing detail”, as he puts it.[6] Atget’s documents, as he himself referred to them, have a directness that appealed to Evans and in an interview with Paul Cummings in 1971 Evans discussed the definition of his work as being in a documentary style rather than being documentary photographs. The difference lay he said in that “a documentary photograph is a police report of a dead body or an automobile accident or something like that. But the style of detachment and record is another matter. That applied to the world around us is what I do with the camera, what I want to see done with the camera.”[7] Despite this position, Evans recognised that the photographic intentions of Atget were unclear and it is possible to read into the photographs “many things he may never have formulated for himself.”[8] I take this position today to look again at some of Evans’ photographs of damage, ruin and decay.

Damaged:

Evans used the magazine spread to form a narrative and it is over a sequence of photographs that we can read connections and disconnections - both in the images—and in the gaps in-between. Hence, in the article Mr. Walker Evans records a City’s scene, the photographer who is trained in “modern Continental methods”, selected four examples that convey the essence of vivid city life. The first titled Truck and Sign is printed below Dadaist style typography, which the magazine describes as “intended to convey in symbolism—as it were, to typify—the blended babel of such a modern city’s life.” The second and final images reiterate the energy of the city, evoking both the visual and verbal cacophony of the urban throng. Printed along the long edge of the magazine, the city diner, full of workers on their lunch break are unsympathetically captured by the camera. You can almost hear the chatter of people and clatter of knives and forks as they hurriedly gobble their food washed down with ice-cold milk – a scene that Evans referred to in the caption as “the foundations of dyspepsia for the million.” The third image of the SS Leviathan sits between these two loud photographs and is offered as an “unexpected monument of calm” that is in contrast to the agitated stridency of the opposite photograph. The photograph implies a visual pause in its abstraction, and yet it connects us back to the first image with its angular nature and contrast of black and white. This visual array, presented over four pages is loaded with visual connections and oppositions that are typical of Evans’ magazine work.

The Wreckers

Evans’ sense of the temporary nature of things is poignantly rendered with harsh wit in a portfolio of photographs for Fortune Magazine from May 1951. In opening the text up as a humouring and cruel buttress to the forlorn, yet colourful imagery, Evans describes the event as the “almost loving destruction of a building seems to answer a deep human need that is surely akin to humour, to impudence, and to the balm of irreverence. Hence, the rapt sidewalk attendance at spectacles of demolition.”[9] In an almost jeering text, Evans remarks on the public’s sheer delight in witnessing the demise of these stone and concrete reminders of former upper-class glory, much like the celebratory songs enunciated at executions in the days of the French revolution or England’s reign of Henry the VIII. The scene, suggests Evans, is best viewed when the building is half demolished and the gleeful wreckers have gone for the day. “Then the torn flower-designs, the wounded beams, the indecent laths, and the entrails of iron weave their most complex spell.”[10] Evans’ corporeal descriptions and oddly anthropomorphic captions are intertwined with photographs that lay bare the interiors of these former New York buildings: The Ritz Hotel, town houses and the Fulton Fish Market; all appearing ruin-like in their forced destruction and dismembered parts.

Evans’ scrapbooks in which he pasted collected imagery such as postcards, news images and articles, reinforce this interest or perhaps fascination with the ruin and the corporeal, abject form. It is through these collected images that we can extend a reading of Evans’ work beyond the descriptive and expected. Hence, we find Cuban news photographs of corpses in the street, which Evans rephotographed and kept as 8 x 10 copy negatives, an act of appropriation that confuses authorship and originality, much like Sherrie Levine’s photographic series After Walker Evans. In these scrapbooks we also find anatomical drawings of foetuses, the lynching of an African-American man, illustrations of toilets, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and images of violence and death. Most pertinent here are images of an electric chair and the news article about the execution of murderer Ruth Snyder by electrocution titled “Crowds follow Ruth and Judd to Grave.” What is it about these found pictures that fascinated Evans and how might we think about the ways in which they developed a critical eye that makes its presence felt in his ongoing photographic endeavours?

The Aesthetically Rejected Subject

Evans’ photographic approach to the ruin and the detritus of everyday life is not limited to the made world but rather extends into the realm of the human subject. His 1936 project with the writer James Agee was a commission to record the lives of three share-cropping families affected by the depression, which culminated in the 1941 book Let us now praise famous men. As in in holding photography as congruent with its referent, Agee remarked that the camera was the central instrument of the time. “If I could do it,” argued Agee, “I’d do no writing here. It would be photographs; the rest would be fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, lumps of earth, records of speech, pieces of wood and iron, phials of odors, plates of food and of excrement.” Describing Evans’ photo book American Photographs as honest, uncompromising but also dangerous and loaded with distressing unease, Agee sets the scene for how we can read many of these revealing images of lost and forgotten people living on the edge of existence.

The framing of many of these images, which is often changed in the final book or magazine layout, is revealing of Evans’ strange looking. For example, in this image on the right [Fireplace and Wall detail in another bedroom], the subject of the photo is not centrally placed but rather is positioned off to one side, despite the presence of two matching vases on the mantle. Surrounding the fireplace is an odd assortment of objects, pictures and markings captured by Evans that reveal his concept of the unconscious phenomenon and also recalls Benjamin’s optical unconscious. On the table that sits in front of the fireplace, covered by a scrap of white paper, a pair of shoes, Sunday bests, are placed to dry, their heels caked in mud. Atop the table are vases and a wrapped object suggesting a mummified cat. On the wall a calendar hangs with the month of August’s young lady sporting a dashing hat and holding a bloom of flowers, flanked on either side by what appear to be family photos or decorative images. Underneath this, indecipherable words are carved into the wooden lining. To the right an array of pictures from a children’s book are crudely nailed to the wall and most oddly a left handprint is evident, which is matched on the other side, just visible at the edge of the picture. So while the inhabitants are absent from this photograph, their traces rub up against the surface of the print in a palpable and yet grotesque way, their poor attempts at decorative homemaking made somehow repulsive by Evans’ unsympathetic and disembodied camera. As Lincoln Kirstein remarks, Evans captures the facts without poetic distortion, acting like “a kind of disembodied burrowing eye,” “stepping cautiously so as to disturb no dust from the normal atmosphere of the average place.”[11]

People and Places in Trouble

In a photo-essay for Fortune in March 1961 titled ‘People and Places In Trouble’, Evans uses the magazine’s pages and a sequence of images to build a picture of the poor and unemployed. The images are accompanied by a short text written by Evans, in which he claims that the plain photograph represents the sheer personal distress of the subject clearer than any sociologist prose or government report. He uses the photographs of the willing participants to voice their own “inept quietude, their inability to convey their intense stupefaction of the will, and hardening of the spirit” as he puts it. Across the four-page photo-essay, Evans weaves a visual thread of despair, loneliness and an intense feeling of obsoleteness. Nevertheless, these people are in fact remotely observed, reflecting fellow photographer Leo Rubinfien’s reflections that it “is far from clear that poverty is the point of his best pictures.”[12] One could perceive Evans’ early work as laced with contempt and you could argue that his photographs for the planned photo-essay with Agee for the US Resettlement Administration, is less about an altruistic or essentialist attitude, but rather an exacting forensic approach that used the mediating lens of the camera to remove him physically and emotionally from his subjects.

This sense of a keen class-minded or socially aware eye pervades many of Evans’ photographs and yet his photographic approach to his subjects is not imbued with pity or awe but rather a matter-of-fact presence that claims to reinforce an even-handed analysis. However, recent scholarship, that contextualises his life through his many diaries and letters, recasts Evans as a cruel commentator.[13] He was a keen diarist and in his entry for 4 July 1935 Evans wrote of his encounter with locals as he drove through West Virginia: “There a homecoming of natives, very degenerate natives, mush faced, apathetic, the pall of ignorance on all sides. Photographed the most gruesome specimens.”[14] As Evans is not, according to his own view, a social-minded reporter, how can we read empathy in any of these pictures? In his afterword to the primary book of Evans’ career, American Photographs in 1938, Kirstein wrote that Evans’ “pictures exist to testify to the symptoms of waste and selfishness that caused the ruin.”[15] The ruin here, I would argue, is not a structure such as a majestic out-of-style hotel, but rather America itself seen through the lens of its forgotten citizens and through Evans’ harshly critical and at times cruel, contemptuous eye. Evans himself thought that the “The secret of photography is that the camera takes on the character and the personality of its handler.”[16]

Unconscious Phenomenon

Seen in light of his own extensive archival image record and diary entries, Evans’ photographs and, in particular his photo-essays, seem to constantly rub things up against each other in the desire to create a type of friction that tests the boundaries of representation. His analytical and seemingly cold rendition of people on the edge forms a tension that sears the image. This can also be seen in the juxtaposition of vernacular houses, figures and mass-produced billboards, which was, John Tagg argued, something that Evans attuned himself to notice.[17]

This tension is present in his photographs that over a period of time reflect his tendency to search for oppositions that in part recall his interest in the unconscious phenomenon and the aesthetically rejected subject. Using his archaeological lens he captured aspirational images of advertising billboards such as this for a triple-A hotel in Florida followed two years later by this of a Negro house in New Orleans. The contrasts and tensions don’t just flow across images through series or via his unique vision of America; they are also painfully present in the individual photographic frames. Like Margaret Bourke-White, Evans’ trained eye sought out strange juxtapositions such as can be seen here with the Heinz advertising billboard for Tomato Ketchup on the left with a dilapidated house on the right that hosts an endless number of African-American inhabitants. At this time he was using a large format camera with a tripod, and while some of the tenants are clearly intrigued by his behaviour, others were either oblivious or purposefully turning their back on the photographer.

As a cultural archaeologist or an undertaker, not only was Evans drawn to photographing the murky undercurrents of life but also to other photographers’ renditions of drab and weary representations of America. In writing about an interior photograph by Wright Morris, Evans extolls the virtues of photography in casting a cruel eye. “Engraved forever”, he writes, “are those hideous designs on the chair back; and the peeling plywood of the chair seat, the stains on the floor linoleum, are here placed on permanent record. You know just how that cheap door hardware sounds, and how it is to the touch. You know too, that there is fly-paper somewhere in the room, just out of sight.” This, says Evans, “is a perfect example of photography’s habit, when guided by a master, of picking up searing little spots of realism and of underlining them, quietly, proportionately.”[18] Evans was no doubt drawn to Morris’ photograph because it so eloquently references one of his own taken in a Virginia Coalminer’s house in 1935. Here, a wicker rocking chair sits on bare floorboards – the absent sitter we imagine as resting after a day’s work in the coalmine, feet reposing on the torn and dilapidated piece of linoleum. The room is heated by a stove in the corner, with its stoker hung on a crossbeam and fuelled by pieces of timber that resemble those that line the room, which are interspersed by pieces of cardboard placed to keep out drafts. Our eyes, however, are drawn to the cardboard advertising signs, one being of young university graduates and the other for coca-cola—two aspirational goals most likely out of reach for the inhabitant.

Visual tension is also designated in this photograph from a commissioned series of New Orleans shot in 1935. In the image to the left, the French Opera barber and seller of Perfecto hair restorer stands in the doorway of her elaborately decorated storefront with hand-written signage, proudly displaying her scissors in her right hand. Next door, in the window of the Bourbon drug store, a younger woman’s face looks ahead to the viewer from the flattened plane of an advertising sign for the beautifying powers of Kränk’s lemon cleansing cream. The model’s glamorous presence heightens the tension of the scene and enhances the incongruous attempts of the barber at her amateurish decorative improvements. On the right is what some writers refer to as a cropped version, but rather this photograph is from a separate negative, published in American photographs in 1938. This version shifts the contrasting elements to the barber with her striped shop and clothing and highlights the broken pavement in the foreground of the picture with its grime and litter of spent matches.

Evans often took multiple shots of the same subject, a habit he commenced in June 1935 when he started work for the federal government. He would take several photographs, always keeping one or more negatives for his own archive in addition to those delivered to Washington. Comparing these negatives reveals much about how Evans operated and how he used the camera to search for amazing accidents of composition. His unpublished and unprinted negatives reveal much about his photographic unconscious and his intentions. Numbering in the tens of thousands in the Evans Archive at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, they remain as if ruinous traces of a pursuit for the illusive nature of photography “the thing” he thought of as “such a secret and so unapproachable.”

Decay

In 1973 at the age of 70 and with failing health, Evans picked up a Polaroid SX-70 camera for a bit of fun. In the two years before he died in 1975 he had taken over 2,600 instant photos in colour and some in black and white. In the early 1970s the Polaroid Corporation gave a number of major photographers cameras and film stock in order that the Polaroid process would be seen as more than a popular toy and Evans became an enthusiastic devotee of the medium. Although he was known for his black-and-white work and had tried to distance himself from colour photography he now claimed to be rejuvenated by the Polaroid technique and said: “it reduces everything to your brains and taste.” Evans used Polaroid to photograph subjects he was most familiar with, for example the various elements of the street as well as still-life and people. Despite his early reticence Evans quickly adapted a new vision that he thought unexpectedly opened up new stylistic paths. On the virtues of the SX-70 he remarked “A practiced photographer has an entirely new extension in that camera. You photograph things that you wouldn’t think of photographing before. I don’t even yet know why, but I find that I’m quite rejuvenated by it. … True, with that little camera your work is done the instant you push that button.”[19]

My interest in these Polaroids is in his renewed concentration on the minutiae of life and it graphic qualities, many of which align with his collection of scrapbook images. For while his many photographs of signage and posters have been attributed to his literary leanings, they also attest to a strong visual language of abstraction and the doubling or slippage of meaning. The framing of many of these Polaroids is close, intimate, abstract and yet strangely banal—an aesthetic trope more likely attuned to to conceptual or contemporary aesthetics employed by many of his photographic protégées.

It was in these last years that Evans again became the subject and turned the camera back on himself. On the left is a photo by John Benson, which with its cracked surface and informal composition set in a black void, heralds his coming demise. On the right, we see Evans’ own foot, captured as he looks down wearing what seem to be chenille pyjamas. The intimate and jewel-like aspect of the small format clearly appealed to him as he focused on details of animate and inanimate objects and was able to present them in the heightened tonalities of the Polaroid. Evans’s image has all the delicacy of his best black-and-white work and exhibits an intrinsic understanding of the vibrancy and immediacy of the medium. The veined foot of the artist on the curly carpet, the brightness of flesh on the lively, dark pile highlighted by the flash – all result in a richly textured image. From the depths of the carpet pile Evans’ visually detached foot becomes visceral with its matter of fact execution of the bodily form. The hair curled on his big toe that mirrors that of the carpet, his neatly clipped yet strangely chipped toenails and his overgrown cuticles and dried skin are all marks that Evans self-designates as an aesthetically rejected subject.

[1] ‘Among the Ruins’, Time, December 27, 1943: 73.

[2] George Eastman House, Image Magazine 17.4 (December, 1974), Originally Published in Yale Alumni Magazine, February, 1974.

[3] Walker Evans, The Hungry Eye (Harry N. Abrams, 2004), 332.

[4] Belinda Rathbone, Walker Evans: A Biography (Mariner Books, 2000), 57.

[5] Rathbone, Walker Evans, 129.

[6] David Campany, Walker Evans: The Magazine Work (Gottingen: Steidl, 2014), 213

[7] Interview with Walker Evans Conducted by Paul Cummings in Connecticut, October 13, 1971 In New York City, December 23, 1971.

[8] Campany, Walker Evans, 213.

[9] Campany, Walker Evans, 103

[10] Campany, Walker Evans, 103

[11] Kirstein, “Photographs,” 194, 197

[12] Leo Rubinfien, Art in America, December 2000

[13] Rubinfien, Art in America, December 2000

[14] Rubinfien, Art in America, December 2000

[15] Rubinfien, Art in America, December 2000

[16] Alan Trachtenberg, Lincoln’s Smile and Other Enigmas, (New York: Hill and Wang, 2007), 307-308. Leslie Katz with Walker Evans, 1971. http://www.americansuburbx.com/2011/10/interview-an-interview-with-walker-evans-pt-1-1971.html

[17] John Tagg, The Disciplinary Frame: Photographic Truths and the Capture of Meaning (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2009).

[18] Evans, Photography, in Louis Kronenberger ed. Quality: Its Image in the Arts (New York:Atheneum, 1969), p180 here from Walker Evans and Company, MOMA, 137.

[19] George Eastman House, Image Magazine 17.4 (December, 1974), Originally Published in Yale Alumni Magazine, February, 1974.