Walker Evans at the Met

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:52

    I Am a Camera "I am a camera," Christopher Isherwood famously wrote in the opening lines of his Berlin Stories of 1930, "with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking." A sort of precis of modernist detachment, Isherwood's line was coaxed out from nearly half a century of artistic experimentation, beginning with Baudelaire and running to Eliot's Waste Land. The definitive metaphor for authorial detachment, the notion of being the camera never described anything or anyone better than the work and person of Walker Evans, without a doubt the most influential and farsighted photographer in American history. Like other would-be American expatriates just out of time with the Lost Generation, Evans felt compelled to take in Paris' literary celebrities from afar. Inflamed to become a writer by books like Ulysses, the young Evans sought, then avoided, a meeting with its author hero. Ducking out on Sylvia Beach's introduction as James Joyce entered Shakespeare & Co., Evans was admittedly "scared to death" to be in the same room as the famous Dubliner. "He was my God," Evans said later. So much in awe was Evans of Joyce's literary achievement that it practically prevented him from putting pen to paper during his 13-month sojourn in Europe.

    Back in the States and having given up novel-writing, Evans took to photography with the same indefatigable, discriminating spirit he had previously brought to bear on his advanced reading. Encouraged by influential friends like Lincoln Kirstein and the poet Hart Crane, Evans pursued photography with what amounted to an inner calling. Coalescing pent-up energies and intense ambition, he found in the photographic camera a release, the artistic means by which to turn experiential mud into picture-perfect diamonds. "I just caught it, like a disease," Evans told an interviewer of his sudden, nearly religious conversion to photography. "Thought about it and practiced it all the time, day by day."

    Reacting against the misty pictorialism and commercial magazine slickness of period masters Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen, Evans crafted a lasting, transparent style to allow, in the words of Baudelaire, "[him]to see the world, to be at the center of the world, yet to remain hidden from the world." Finding kinship in the posthumously recognized work of Eugene Atget (thanks to his friend, the photographer Berenice Abbott, for a time the executor of Atget's estate), Evans learned to hinge his photographs' success on "the unnoticed things that make emotions." Rather than monuments, Evans' principal subject was the human vernacular. It was his extraordinary gift to be able to coax it out from the faces of West Virginia coal miners and torn movie posters in Atlanta, GA; to commemorate the demotic present with all the authority and grace that is usually reserved for the past.

    Using first a bulky, deliberative view-camera during an age Kodak had already pegged with the slogan "You push the button, we do the rest," Evans recorded city billboards, barbershop fronts and unremarkable, everyday street life in an America acidly described by e.e. cummings as the "land above all of Just Add Hot Water And Serve." Other early projects, some commissioned, drove Evans toward documentation of a distinct yet pedestrian America: the streets of New York, Victorian homes in New England, the Brooklyn Bridge. Armed with a 35 mm Leica, Evans traveled to Havana to make photographs for Carleton Beals' exposé The Crime of Cuba. Once there, Evans captured his first images of poverty, destitution and despair, also making portraits of working people and a particularly brilliant picture of a nattily dressed, feline-eyed, black pimp, warily prowling the clashing signage of an Havana newspaper stand.

    In New York again, Evans acquired a new state-of-the-art tool, a right-angle viewfinder, making it possible for him to photograph people without their knowledge. Out on the street, Evans made the "unposed" portrait of city life his own, loitering near his prey and snapping away at unsuspecting molls, lunching stockbrokers and Coney Island couples. Years later, when using a similar method to surreptitiously photograph subway passengers for a book published under the title Many Are Called, Evans repeatedly mentioned Honoré Daumier's painting Third Class Railway Carriage. "[It's] a kind of snapshot of actual people sitting in a railway carriage in the mid-nineteenth century," Evans said, reaching back into art history for maximum authority, "[Daumier]sketched those people on the spot, like a reporter."

    It was as a reporter, in fact, that Evans took the photographs for which he is most lastingly remembered today. After working sporadically for the New Deal Resettlement Administration in poverty-stricken states in the Mideast and Deep South, Evans signed up with writer James Agee to cast a "study of Farm Economics in the South" (Agee's words, which he contemporaneously declared "impossible for me") for Henry Luce's Fortune.

    Outfitted with a car, money, time and photographic and writing equipment, both artists set off on an esthetically blessed if journalistically fruitless journey (Fortune, which had tacked leftward during the Depression, eventually passed on the fine, rambling story). Years later, the odd collaboration emerged as Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a 500-page prose and photographic lyric to dirt-poor misery everywhere. "Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel," was one quotation, taken from King Lear, that graced the book's inside cover. The 31 (62 when the book was reissued) photographs appearing before the title page faced that wretchedness so squarely?thanks to Evans' traditional, no-holds-barred, frontal approach?that the printers had to be advised to not clear off the black specks (flies) they would otherwise assume were imperfections in the plate.

    Now on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, incredibly, is the first ever comprehensive retrospective of Walker Evans' photographs to have graced this city or any other. Some 175 vintage prints in all, in addition to letters, diary entries, small selections from Evans' collections of signs and postcards and, more significantly, a concluding group of some 50 Polaroid color studies the photographer made when he was too old and frail to print, fill several rooms of the Met's galleries. His New York subway riders are there, as are his Havana dockworkers, black Southern churches and zealous Pennsylvania Legionnaires.

    Most gut-wrenching of all, still, are the frank, straightforward portraits he made of the Burroughs, Fields and Tingle families of Hale County, AL. Evans' portrait of Allie Mae Burroughs?all chapped lips, furrowed brow and contained grief?rivals the Mona Lisa in psychological ambiguity. Katie Tingle appears in what Agee called "the most primitive sewn and designed garment I have ever seen." Faces trapped inside their black, window-like frames, they invite us to walk a mile in their shoes. If looking carefully enough we can see there, in the words of William Carlos Williams, "ourselves made worthy in our anonymity."

    "Walker Evans," through May 14 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 5th Ave. (82nd St.), 879-5500.