"Walker Evans"

A more critical eye could have taken this wonderfully researched life of the photographer to another level.


Andrew Long
August 11, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

In 1927, a decade before Walker Evans would be acknowledged as one of the preeminent American photographers of the young century, the 23-year-old college dropout was infatuated with French symbolist poetry and sensualist prose. Andri Gide's style, in particular, he found "mesmerizing," and that year he translated a 12-page section of
"Si le grain ne meurt," Gide's scandalous confessional memoir. One relatively innocuous passage recalled a childhood epiphany: "It seems to me that I am about to be initiated suddenly into another life, a mysterious unusually real, a more brilliant and a more pathetic life, which commences only when little children are in bed." Just after Evans' translation stops, Gide pushes on toward deeper waters: "There is reality and there are dreams and there is another reality as well."

Both passages bear startling affinities to Evans' future. Over the next three years he did start a new life, as a Manhattan bohemian, cultivating friendships with other young artists, writers and intellectuals and dwelling more and more on photography, an art that until then he had considered a kind of "left-hand hobby." In 1930, he set up a studio in Brooklyn Heights and embarked on a career of making pictures that were immediately recognized for their astonishing ability to capture the other reality that neither dreams nor everyday life was equipped to describe.

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Uncovering the Gide passage is among the late James R. Mellow's finer accomplishments in his biography "Walker Evans." With full access to the photographer's estate -- diaries, letters, work logs and other materials -- Mellow devoted his efforts to establishing a month-by-month narrative of Evans' life, and it's one that will certainly serve future biographers well. In its detailed account of the salon-driven Manhattan art-and-literature scene of the 1930s and '40s, the book is also a valuable cultural history; the impulse to weave a historical narrative was a great strength of Mellow's, on display in his previous biographies of Hemingway, Stein and Hawthorne.

Mellow was only the second full-fledged biographer to assume the task of documenting Evans' life (the first, Belinda Rathbone, published her "Walker Evans" just four years ago); he died suddenly in November 1997, before finishing the final drafts of the last chapters of the book. The biography ends in the late 1950s and is followed by a thorough chronology of Evans' final years (he died in 1975). As it stands, even though we miss details of Evans' late friendships with photographers Robert Frank and Lee Friedlander, of his late flurry of color Polaroid work and of his alcoholism, the book feels complete emotionally; it suffers only a small amount from the absence of a chapter devoted to the author's concluding thoughts.

As good as he is, though, in laying out the facts of Evans' life in readable, if sometimes less than lively, prose, Mellow refrained from a rigorous examination of the artist's work and its effect on popular culture, as if Evans' reputation were so firmly established (there is, of course, too much catalog copy out there already) that he felt it unnecessary. The book is well-illustrated, with 150 reproductions, but it's left to the reader to "read" the pictures. In only a handful of fortunate instances does Mellow spend important time with a photograph.

For example, he takes his time describing a picture of a "plump woman" in a striped blouse and feather cap in the doorway of a similarly striped New Orleans barbershop. We learn that this image was one of a sequence. It was artist's luck that the woman emerged from the darkened portal as Evans was shooting pictures of it; he then asked her to pose. Mellow notes the delicious difference between the smiling, rotund lady and the silky, alluring woman in a nearby ad for lemon cleansing cream. He declares with confidence: "In any Evans photograph, stories run in several directions. Narrative, caught in the fixed moment (like Zeno's arrow), was one of Evans' principal talents. His eye gathered in the composition of things as they are. His was an art of juxtaposition, visual wit, droll happenstance." It's not Dr. Johnson, but bravo.

Mellow's most valuable contribution lies in his portraits of Evans' friendships with Lincoln Kirstein, his early patron and mentor (although Kirstein was four years younger), and James Agee, the hard-living but sensitive and quixotic writer who became Evans' soul mate in his quest to describe the American vernacular. Kirstein was responsible for Evans' first two major exhibitions, both at the nascent Museum of Modern Art. (The author is duly amazed at the speed with which a MoMA show could be mounted in 1933. Kirstein proposed the idea for the first show to director Alfred Barr at lunch on Nov. 9; the exhibition opened a week later.)

As for Agee, the intensity and love with which he approached his writing and his subjects, especially the Alabama tenant farmers he and Evans describe in "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men," influenced Evans deeply. Mellow is spellbinding as he tells the story, slowly and with sparkling detail, of the pair's trip through the Deep South and of their visits with the sharecropping families. He makes clear how both artists, one through graphic and poetic prose, the other through unflinching, dignified photographs, revealed, in Agee's phrase, "the cruel radiance of what is."

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It's the high point of a book that should have had many more. Mellow lays out the stages of Evans' life evocatively: There's the spoiled teenager in white flannel trousers; the happy though diffident member of Manhattan's "high Bohemia" (in Kirstein's phrase); the proud, driven and increasingly confident photographer; the dandyish, complacent middle-aged photo editor at Fortune magazine (for 20 years!); and finally the old man whose happiness has been slowly eroded by failed relationships, the deaths of friends and alcohol. And Mellow renders the cultural temperature of the times beautifully. But by declining to engage in a deeper evaluation of Evans' singular career, to weave biography and history together with art criticism in such a way that each would illumine the other, Mellow missed the chance to produce a work much greater than the sum total of his painstaking research.


Andrew Long

Andrew Long is a senior editor at Departures magazine, and writes frequently about photography.

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