Reading Walker Evans

Reading Walker Evans
Afterword to Jason Francisco's book, After the American Century

First published by the Museum of Modern Art in 1938, Walker Evans’ American Photographs is a book whose cunning arrives as humility.  Its ferocity is offered as cold poignancy.  A field guide, an inventory, a dispatch, a diagnosis, a compressed epic poem—the book stakes out a form of photographic communication in which all of these tasks are undertaken at once, and does so with an elegance and an economy still unmatched in all of photographic literature.  

Evans is a plain-talking griot, a trickster.  As an artist whose first and perhaps deepest ambition was to write, he understands that nothing characterizes the vernacular use of photographs better than the compulsion to turn them into stories, just as nothing characterizes the elitist use of photographs better than the compulsion to elevate them beyond stories, toward metaphor and abstraction.  As Evans gives it to us, the hardest thing to accept about photographs is the first thing about them:  that they show and do not tell, depict and do not describe, make-manifest and do not aver.  Occasionally this difficulty amounts to a small wonder—particularly when a picture solicits stories but somehow remains incommensurate with them.  With Evans this is often the case.  One is almost tempted to say that for Evans, a photograph is narrative in a state of perpetual arrival—and so perhaps a more intensive experience of language than sentences or poems allow.  Still, Evans also knows that whatever forms of story might lurk in photographs are bound to fail as certainties.  He knows that the relay between images—his true medium—both prolongs and hastens the end of each picture’s utterance.  To insist that sharp movements between lucid pictures are the basic terms of photographic meaning, as Evans does, is to shift the telling of Americanness into a dialectic of colligated observations and the intervals between them.  In effect, it is to explore “America” in the condition of photographs themselves.

Evans' strategy is to act as a collaborator with a medium, so that this collaboration might carry the weight of his concerns and also his passions.  To let photography act, as if to unleash photography itself at America and then to stand over the spectacle more as a referee than as a creator—this is Evans’ guiding conceit.  Photographic commentary, Evans insists, does not trade on a reconstruction of motives attributable to the photographer, but on the interactivity of pictures themselves.  In this sense, the rules of his game give him all the credit and also afford him plausible deniability for everything.  Significantly, they also suggest that photographic creativity neither begins nor ends with the making of pictures.  Rather photographs come somewhere in the middle of the photographic act—preceded by many anticipatory moments, and succeeded by the image sequences and the archives that pictures are destined to join.

If in Evans’ hands, what is direct becomes oblique and the act of witnessing makes things more rather than less inexplicable, American Photographs sets a challenge:  what is it to require from photographs that they be a reckoning, and in this reckoning, what it is to be led by photographs themselves and not by a foregone plotline of America?  Certainly for Evans, seeing is a matter of looking skeptically at the state of our knowledge, but beyond this it is hard to say what the act of reckoning amounts to.  We understand that his archness is cynical while his forthrightness is sincere, and likewise we understand that his vision is unflinching while the journeying behind the vision is coy.  It is apparent that conclusions are not what he wants from us.  

Evans’ best critics—Lincoln Kirstein, Alan Trachtenberg, Max Kozloff, Tod Papageorge, Sarah Greenough, Leo Rubinfien—have characterized his approach as a joining of tensions:  the pure hitched to the vulgar, the heroic to the pathetic, the solemn to the splenetic, and these are fair observations.  What I notice is a variant of a traditional American preoccupation with sin, albeit without faith as a counterpoint.  Poverty, fakery and endemic loneliness are not occasional or accidental products of American civilization as Evans shows it to us, but deep and necessary to its way of life.  The spirit of laconic prophecy seems to motivate Evans—a compulsion to write in the ledger book of an errant civilization.  Though Evans names as his operative influences Flaubert and Baudelaire, in this regard I would call his soulmate Nathaniel Hawthorne, and his genre, like Hawthorne’s, allegory.  Evans’ pictures are something like the Reverend Hooper’s famous black veil, a tactic for complicating sight in order to focus vision more intently, a shrewd way of drawing attention to a people’s inner estrangements.  The problem is that as an allegorist at odds with narrative—who, in contrast to Hawthorne, dissimulates “tales” as much as he crafts them—Evans offers moral commentary mixed with photography’s own thievishness and mischievousness.  He courts the stance of the accuser, without avowing it.  He calls down high seriousness, only to affect it once it arrives.  We don’t know at the end of the day whether Evans is acting the judge or being the judge—or whether the verdict is binding or not binding.   The verdict itself is a rigorous exercise in reticent disclosure.

What remains for me most vital in Evans is not his guises but the testy quality of his voice—a testiness that abides within his pictures’ transactionary states, the ways they shuttle the viewer back and forth between high and low art, rarity and commonplace, treasure and bargain.  If there is something “behind” his pictures, driving them on, it is an aloof, caustic instinct for how a solitary observer might outwit all of America, and concomitantly, the ways photographs might outwit art.

Like generations of other photographers in the seventy-plus years since American Photographs ’ publication, I have received Evans' book as a prompt for further work, a challenge to reckon with the complications of the America of my own time, and with the literary potential of photographic testimony.  The preceding two sequences of pictures are overtly modeled on the structure that Evans assumed for himself:  fifty pictures followed by thirty eight, each image both an autonomous observation and a link in a concatenated exploration.  Likewise, my two sequences pivot on the distinct aspects of photographic meaning that Evans’ two sequences set forth:  first, photography's affinity for narrative and symbolic drift, and second, photography's affinity for infomational specificity.  Following Evans' example, Part One of this book draws on a wide range of picture types to create associative momentum, including portraiture, landscape and cityscape.  Part Two is devoted to the study of vernacular American spaces and structures, much as the second sequence of Evans’ book surveys American architecture.  Overall, my goal, like Evans’ (as I read him) has been to bring the full force of a mercurial art to bear on American culture.  To grapple with the America of my own time through a sustained practice of reading and seeing treated as transposable actions, in which statements act like questions, simple facts morph into symbols, and knowing proceeds by way of seeming––this is the task I put to myself over years of traveling, looking and responding.    

The America to be reckoned with now is, of course, an heir to the one Evans offers us.  It is as recognizably spent as Evans' America, and imbued with the same leftover classicism.  Like Evans’ America, it remains peculiarly innocent of its own history, which is to say flogged by its own ideals, to the point of abjection.  The dozen years in which I have made these photographs (2000-2012) are in certain ways reminiscent of the several years of the 1930s in which Evans made his pictures.  Both decades began with a rupturing event, namely the Wall Street crash of October 1929 and the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001 (the latter pictured in the second plate of this book).  In both decades, these rupturing events led to severe economic downturn and war––first depression and then war in the earlier case, the reverse in the later case.  Both
are decades marked by extreme inequality and polarized politics, dominated by the left in the 1930s and the right in the 2000s.  Both are decades in which the sense of loss of an earlier America seems potent.

Without prognosticating on the question of civilizational decline, it seems clear to me that the period since September 11th represents a coda to what many have called the “American Century,” in reference to the political, economic and cultural power of the U.S. in the twentieth century.  How Americans undid their own gain is, of course, a long and complicated story.  It is not news that the post-Reagan collapse of the left, the corrosive transformation of the media into an entertainment industry, radical market deregulation, massive public bailouts of banks and large corporations, massive consumer debt, massive military spending, perpetual war, the shift of the tax burden away from the rich, the chronic bleeding of manufacturing and now service-sector jobs, long-term wage stagnation—all of these miserable developments and many more have resulted in an extraordinarily imbalanced distribution of wealth, attended by an equally extraordinary erosion of democratic governance.  As much as any time in American history, predatory corporate interests dictate the terms of the general welfare, and the U.S. government has emerged as the tool of the rich to loot everyone else.  The economic consequences of this crisis threaten the entire globe, while the destructive cultural consequences to the United States have grown steadily clearer over the past forty years.  Not least among these consequences is the growth of an endemically violent society in both symbolic and literal terms.  

I am looking into my own country—a native son, and like Evans, a man of the left.  I am lamenting.  I am asking myself:  for whose sake am I looking?  A hundred years ago, my ancestors fled the pogroms and oppressiveness of Tsarist Russia, seeking peace and opportunity in a half-fictionalized foreign place.  Refuge came at a high cost.   "...קייִן אַמעריקע צו קומען , האָב זיך מיט געשפּאָרט"  began a popular Yiddish song of the 1920s––"Coming to America, you won't keep anything..."  In their willingness to accept great risk, my relatives were much like other immigrants.  I am the inheritor of their choices, and now I feel an obligation to speak back to the dead.  I feel the urge to tell them:  the American exceptionalism you so prized is no longer a question of knack—the extent to which ingenuity can ward off the ill future—but a question of tragedy, the extent to which America's wounds act like fate.

If a photographer's vision is to participate in the evolution of a culture, it must somehow show us that a way of seeing liberates rather than fastens down what it shows.  Photography’s key advantage in this task is its resistance to narrative closure, the stories that photographs continuously invite, and only partly confess.  The acuity of photographic testimony is largely a function of how sympathetically pictures prepare us to disavow the givenness with which we might otherwise approach our world.


Jason Francisco
June, 2012