Eric Homberger’s Window On Walker Evans

An Exhibit At Highgate Gallery, London

By: - Nov 19, 2010

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A dozen or so American photographers produced a quarter million photographs during the decade of the Great Depression. Many of those images identified chief elements and characters of that turbulent period. One photographer may be said to have defined photography for other photographers.

“Walker Evans saw a world that within a generation would disappear,” said University of East Anglia cultural historian Eric Homberger, describing Evans’ work within the larger context of the New Deal’s Farm Security Administration (FSA) extraordinary documentary project. “He had a passion for the vernacular, and the vision and technical expertise to elevate the mundane to the memorable.”

Homberger was speaking recently in London’s famous Highgate Gallery, introducing to a British audience the special traveling exhibition sponsored by the Heywood Museum. Highgate is a literary and scientific institution noted for promoting the graphic arts in North London. Kathy Dallas, Highgate’s program director, said the exhibition had been selected among several available in part because she felt its content “spoke to our times.” Evans’ images were, she said, “a shocking reminder of what happens to people when things go down.”

It was, as they say, a dark and stormy night. But through the wind and cold the high and plain gallery space, brightly illuminating Evans’ high finish images grouped in roughly chronological sections, filled quickly with individuals whose questions later suggested more than a passing interest in Evans or photography.

Homberger said he would break his talk into two parts: the first a general commentary on Evans and his work; the second a “walk around,” running commentary on particular photographs. He began by pointing out that Evans’ image making had a history and did not suddenly spring from the FSA’s (propaganda) project that would record the Depressions’ human devastation and the New Deal’s recovery and renewal efforts.

It also had a prehistory that was both discriminating and quirky. “Evans was very attuned to the avante garde of the 1920s,” Homberger said. “He did photographs for poet Hart Crane’s The Bridge, and was connected to Lincoln Kirstein’s important little magazine Hound and Horn.” It was not widely known that “Kirstein, in fact, had a crucial influence on Evans,” according to Homberger. Evans, moreover, had been involved with the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in the early thirties. Kirstein was one of MoMA's founders.

“Evans had gone to Cuba to do photographs for a book he claimed he had not read,” Homberger said. “He knew then how good he was, he insisted on making his own decisions.” This was true in his Fortune Magazine assignment with James Agee that resulted in the iconic images in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, and deciding to ignore the FSA project’s director, Roy Stryker, and Stryker’s famous “scripts” not just about what was to be shot—down to what was in or out of the picture—but where and how it was to be shot.

Interestingly, for someone who knew the world of American advertising and elite writers and artists so well, Evans “scorned the photography of a Margaret Bourke-White,” Homberger said. “He found it ‘arty’ and in the end ‘mechanical’ and therefore uninteresting. Which was odd, since Evans’ images represented such carefully staged, precisely framed and purposefully lit productions that, in effect, created their own (highly articulated) aesthetic.

Homberger prefaced his “walk around” of the Evans’ exhibition with five general points. His first was that Evans had worked out an aesthetic well before he was engaged by the mid-Thirties FSA program. This “highly polished and disciplined posture” towards the images Evans made that put him at loggerheads with the more explicitly political aims of the FSA which, after all, was using dozens of photographer’s images to publicize and defend New Deal programs almost as quickly as FSA photographers were producing them.

A second observation was a development of Evans’ ‘non commercial’ attitude. “He was critical of photographers aiming their work at making money. Anything that pushed the commercial end Evans bridled at and when it came his way, opposed.” Naturally this had its contradictions, Homberger said, since many photographers of the time, good ones like Stieglitz, did both, made good money and made good images. 

Also worth noting was that during these turbulent political times, according to Homberger, Evans was untouched by the raging political passions sweeping the United States. He had friends who were members of the Communist Party, others who were deeply involved in this or that cause, yet Evans himself would have nothing to do with it, and Evans did not see his photographic work contributing one way or the other. Though of course it could not fail to do so. Homberger observed, however, “It was odd for a white photographer to be taking photographs of Black Southern churches.” At that time, no American editor or publisher was interested in publishing anything to do with Black churches. More noncommercial subject matter for Evans.

“Evans insisted on making his own decisions,” Homberger said. And he withdrew, as was the case with his James Agee collaboration and, later, his work with the FSA, when what was to be photographed, how it was to be photographed, and how presented, came into conflict with his own sense of each element. This fourth point about Evans’ maintaining what Homberger termed “his prickly independence,” was life-long. “He couldn’t care less about the poor, blacks, the Communist Party or the anti-Fascist movements of the time – if they got in the way of what he wanted to photograph and how he wanted to do it.”

A last point, about the general nature of the photographs themselves and their relationship to their subjects had to do with the contradictory nature of Walker Evans’ aesthetic. “Evans couldn’t stand ‘artiness,’ Homberger again said. “Yet these images are distinctly themselves, photography raised to a very high level of ‘finish’ so that when you look around the walls at these sixty-odd images, you must conclude that no one else in America could have taken them.”

Homberger asked his audience to reflect on their relationship to the three groupings presented at Highgate. One having to do with the sharecropper families Evans and James Agee encountered – and Agee lived with and later wrote about at such powerful and poetic length. A second grouping of images are associated with the early FSA period, some industrial sites such as the steel works and community in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. And a third is of lesser structures, many in the Deep South, of black and poor white churches, grain and general stores, street scenes of old vehicles and still older storefronts. These are shot with absolute precision.

“You cannot possibly imagine how poor some of these people were,” Homberger said. And then, by way of opening the text — “What do these images say?” He pushed further, wondered whether “these people are making an appeal,” were they asking the viewer to “feel badly, or write a check?” The answer appeared to be none of the above.

Despite Evans’ stiff “distancing,” part of the power of Evans’ images and his ability to draw in and move the viewer was an attention to detail so intense and so pure in framing, lighting, positioning, inclusion and exclusion of detail, that it amounted to a kind of caring never before seen in photography. Not in Lewis Hines or in Jacob Riis, Homberger noted, “have the most vulnerable of individuals and their surroundings been giving the dignity Walker Evans captures or visits upon them by his kind of paying attention.”

His subjects, Homberger said, “are not cringing, they are open to the photographer’s lens. They are not victims as in earlier photography and their commonplace fixtures have an integrity, a dignity and kind of pride.” This is not a world “tidied up for our benefit.” What Evans has done, Homberger said, “is distinctively American in elevating the seemingly mundane, it is the bedrock of American democracy to locate heroic possibility in the commonplace.”