Walker Evans: I am a Writer

I am not a Walker Evans expert, but from my recent readings about him, I sensed there were three significant events in his life that shaped the man, and subsequently, the photographs we’ve come to cherish.

One of the events I briefly mentioned in the last Walker Evans writing, and that was his search for a particular style of photography. Rejecting the existing photographic styles of the time– which either disregarded the strengths of the camera in favor of artificially created scenes, or sought to tug emotion from the viewer–Evans sat in a library looking through all 50 issues of the photographic journal, Camera Work until finding what he was looking for: Paul Strand’s photograph of a blind woman, shown below.

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In this picture, Evans saw an uncompromising realism unfettered by any emotional hooks. There was no attempt to make the woman into something either to be admired or pitied; nor was there an attempt to make a ‘pretty’ picture, or a noble one. Combined, this realism and lack of emotionality formed the basis for Evans’ own style of photography: unsentimental, realistic, and unstaged. In other words: objective.

A search for objective truth in art wasn’t unique to Evans–many of the creative people of that time shared this philosophy about their work. But objectivity was almost an obsession with Evans, and we can trace the roots of this to his upbringing and the second pivotal event in his life: the separation of his parents when he was in his teens.

Evans came from a relatively affluent family, and his father was a prominent marketing and advertising man, a profession Evans was later to term one of the bastard professions. His mother was from a wealthy family and liked nothing more than to be a figure in society.

Evans had a relatively happy childhood until they moved from his home near Chicago to Ohio when his father got a new job. It was in Ohio that his father began an affair and subsequently left his mother. Evans, already lonely from the loss of his childhood friends was left confused and unsure, and the previously outgoing boy began to draw inwards, away from his contentious family.

His mother, whose world was drastically upset, begin to live vicariously through her children, determined that they were going to have happy, prosperous lives (with her a central part in each). She was, in many ways, an outwardly sentimental woman, but at the same time, she was not demonstrative or terribly affectionate.

Within the Evans family, before and after the separation, sentiment was both an artificial promise and a means to an end. Through his father, Evans saw sentiment used as a tool to lure people into buying a product or service: after all, what better way to build a successful advertising campaign than to incorporate images of cute babies, small puppies, and happy American families. From his mother, Evans perceived sentiment woven into a complex fabric consisting partially of denied security and affection, a great deal of manipulative guilt, and even some frustrated sexuality.

Though it’s not as fashionable to lay praise for a person on their early childhood experiences, it’s difficult to deny the impact Evans’ parent’s separation, and their behavior both before and after, had on his search for both objectivity, and anonymity, in his work.

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To get a better understanding of Evans’ objectivity, compare his photographs of sharecroppers during the Great Depression with those of another very famous photographer of the time: Margaret Bourke-White.

A month before James Agee and Walker Evans took off on their trip that would result in the book, Now Let Us Praise Famous Men, Bourke-White took off for similar reasons with the well-known writer, Erksine Caldwell.

Margaret Bourke-White was not a person who waited for a photograph to happen. Whenever they arrived at a potential scene, she would direct the people, telling them not only where to stand but what type of emotion to display on their faces. From Belinda Rathbone’s biography of Walker Evans:

White relied on Caldwell to guide her to the people she wanted to photograph, but once there she went to work “like a motion picture director”, remembered Caldwell, telling people where to sit, where to stand, and waiting for a look of worry or despair to cross their faces. Under her direction, passive, weatherbeaten, and cross-eyed sharecroppers were turned into characters in a play, playing themselves.

Bourke-White even went so far as to arrange objects in a scene, for which she was scolded by her co-author (and husband), Caldwell. Unusual behavior considering the following quote:

I feel that utter truth is essential,” Bourke-White said of her work, “and to get that truth may take a lot of searching and long hours

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Bourke-White would enter churches during services and start taking pictures, once going so far as to climb in through a window one time when she found the door locked during a service.

Evans, on the other hand, was reluctant to intrude. Rather than ask to enter a church, he would take photos of the outside. He wouldn’t touch any objects within a scene, and when taking pictures of people, he would allow them to pose themselves, or he would wait to take the picture until their initial stiffness from being in front of the camera wore off.

More importantly, he refused to make the people into objects of pity, which, after all, would imply sentimentality. If Bourke-White’s photos inspired one to want to change the fate of the people, Evans inspired no such humanitarian impulses. One never feels guilt, when looking at an Evans’ photo. Or pity, or humor, or desire. All one feels is interest, admiration, sometimes astonishment…and a little envy, but that doesn’t arise from the subject.

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So what was the third event that was so significant in Evans life? Well, in actuality it was a non-event.

When Evans was a young man, he convinced his family to send him to Paris to study the language and literature. At that time, photography was only a hobby for him, he wanted to be a writer. And there was no better time for an aspiring writer to be in Paris, with the likes Ernest Hemingway, T. S. Eliot, Dorothy Parker, Ezra Pound, and someone whom Evans admired above all others, James Joyce, living there.

Evans would hang out at the bookshop where Joyce would appear every day, watching other young men and women seek Joyce’s company, to shake his hand and try to engage him in conversation–an impossible task with the monosyllabic Joyce. The shop owner offered an introduction between Evans and Joyce, but Evans shied away from his chance to meet his hero, something that he’d talk about for many years into the future.

When Evans returned to New York at the end of the year, photography gradually overcame his interest in writing, inspired in part, I believe, by James Joyce. After all, what could Evans write that had not been written by others such as Joyce? And how could he shine in a field as luminous as this? All those who write experience these moments of doubt when we read another’s writing that is so brilliant that we are left feeling humbled and inadequate. Humility, not to mention being second, third, or even tenth best, is not something that Evans would have lived with, comfortably.

But the camera, the camera now, was fresh territory. And with the camera, he could grab his quick sketches of life, in pictures rather than words. Whatever interest he had in writing could not be sustained alongside his growing passion for photography.

Evans would later say:

Oh yes, I was a passionate photographer, and for a while somewhat guiltily, because I thought that this is a substitute for something else, well for writing, for one thing. But I got very engaged and I was compulsive about it too. It was a real drive. Particularly when the lighting was right. You couldn’t keep me in.

I can agree with Evans, that photography can quickly become a substitute for writing. One image can so easily convey information that may take thousands of words to do, and less eloquently.

A few weeks ago, when I started digging more deeply into Walker Evans’ life, I was asked by a magazine to provide a portfolio of photos, including any better quality digital ones. I asked Charles, a photographer who has worked with magazines in the past to give me advice on printing the photos, which he was very generous to provide. He also shared with me anecdotal stories about photography students preparing their portfolios, each professionally printed and bound

But I looked at my little digital images, all of them at 72 DPI, and my slides, and my nice, but not great inkjet printer and asked myself, “What the hell are you doing, Shelley?” just about the same time I read, …I was a passionate photographer, and for a while somewhat guiltily, because I thought that this is a substitute for something else—well for writing, for one thing….

And it is thankfully, and with relief that I gave up the nonsense about being a stock photographer for magazines, or an art photographer, or any kind of professional photographer, and return to what I love: writing. Because I am a writer.

Death of a Moth

Years ago I worked in a large modern building with dark grey glass doors and windows. One morning when I was out smoking, I noticed a bright spot on the wall next to the door — a white moth, with soft, furry body and silvery antennae. It was the most beautiful creature I had ever seen—delicate and fragile, highlighted by the darkness of the glass and granite building. It was held there against the wall by a grip frozen in death.

I was reminded of this moth when I read W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz with his references to moths; subtle symbols of the lead character’s search for the truth of who he is, like the moth’s obsessive desire for illumination, regardless of the cost. And in the book, memories are tipped out into words forming stories as fragile as the wings of a moth preserved in a jar:

None of the containers was more than two or three inches high, and when I opened them one by one and held them in the light of the lamp, each proved to contain the mortal remains of one of the moths which — as Austerlitz had told me — had met its end here in this house. I tipped one of them, a weightless ivory-colored creature with folded wings that might have been woven of some immaterial fabric, out of its Bakelite box onto the palm of my right hand. Its legs, which it had drawn up under its silver-scaled body as if just clearing some final obstacle, were so delicate taht I could scarely make them out, while the antannae curving high above the whole body also trembled on the edge of visibility.

In college I was introduced to another story featuring a moth, Virginia Woolf’s essay, Death of a Moth. In it, Woolf writes about a moth flying about a window pane, its world constrained by the boundaries of the wood holding the glass. The moth flew from one side to the other, and then back again, as the rest of life continued ignorant of its movements. At first indifferent, Woolf was eventually moved to pity of the moth:

The possibilities of pleasure seemed that morning so enormous and so various that to have only a moth’s part in life, and a day moth’s at that, appeared a hard fate, and his zest in enjoying his meagre opportunities to the full, pathetic.

The moth settles on the window sill and Woolf forgets it until she notices it trying to move again, but this time its movements are slow and awkward. It attempts to fly but fails, and falls back down to the sill—landing on its back, tiny feet clawing at the air as it tries to right itself. The author reaches out to help when she realizes that it is dying and draws back, reluctant to interfere with this natural process. Somehow in the brightness of the day, the power of death was seeking this moth and there was nothing anyone could do to stop it.

Still, she watched the moth as it fought against the inevitable:

One could only watch the extraordinary efforts made by those tiny legs against an oncoming doom which could, had it chosen, have submerged an entire city, not merely a city, but masses of human beings; nothing, I knew, had any chance against death. Nevertheless after a pause of exhaustion the legs fluttered again. It was superb this last protest, and so frantic that he succeeded at last in righting himself. One’s sympathies, of course, were all on the side of life.

However, after the moth had righted itself, in the instant of its victory, death descended:

The moth having righted himself now lay most decently and uncomplainingly composed. O yes, he seemed to say, death is stronger than I am.

In Woolf’s essay, the battle between life and death is somehow seen as both pathetic and noble. Pathetic because death will always win regardless the desire for life; but noble in how one faces death — on our back, defeated, or on our feet and in dignity.

Another essay also called Death of a Moth by Annie Dillard is often compared to Woolf’s essay, most likely because of the similar titles and subjects. Unlike Woolf’s moth, Dillard’s meets its end much more dramatically—caught within a candle’s flame, it’s body on fire, which Dillard details in unsentimental detail:

Her moving wings ignited like tissue paper, like angels’ wings, enlarging the circle of the darkness the sudden blue sleeves of my sweater, the green leaves of jewelweed by my side, the ragged red trunk of a pine; at once the light contracted again and the moth’s wings vanished in a fine, foul smoke. At the same time, her six legs clawed, curled, blackened, and ceased, disappearing utterly. And her head jerked in spasms, making a spattering noise; her antennae crisped and burnt away and her heaving mouthparts cracked like pistol fire. When it was all over, her head was, so far as I could determine, gone, gone the long way of her wings and legs.

Compared to Woolf’s moth, with its quiet dignity and brave fight against death, Dillard’s moth was caught in a torment of fire and died violently, one could almost say grotesquely. Death isn’t veiled in the struggle; isn’t seen through the same type of grey silken glasses worn by one of Sebald’s characters to mute the landscape when he paints. Death is stripped bare, exposed in all of its hideous indifference.

Yet where Woolf’s moth leads one to accept death, to embrace the nobility of death, Dillard’s moth flares out at death, defiant, and unaccepting. Its death says to me, “I do not go willingly, I do not give up on life easily. You must rip it from me and I’ll fight to hold it.” In the end, rather than form a noble and dignified corpse, Dillard’s moth becomes a second wick, causing the candle to burn that much brighter:

She burned for two hours without changing, without swaying or kneeling-only glowing within, like a boiling fire glimpsed through silhouetted walls, like a hollow saint, like a flame-faced virgin gone to God, while I read by her light, kindled while Rimbaud in Paris burnt out his brain in a thousand poems, while night pooled wetly at my feet.

I was more moved by Woolf’s moth, but Dillard’s moth is the one most vivid in my mind and in my memory.

Burningbugs

Today was hot and humid, which meant the fireflies were out, in force, at dusk. One particularly frisky little bug hovered in front of the living room window, seemingly infatuated with the magnificant glow of the small light by the window. Zzz. It said. Zzz. Zzz. Callous light just glowed steadily, ignoring the little critter.

How sad, this lost moment
and the love that was not meant to be;
The little burningbug
who lusted after electricity.

I didn’t see my first firefly until I moved to a house on Grande Isle in Vermont several years ago. The place was surrounded by fields, high up on a hill overlooking the lake, the closest neighbor hid by a bank of trees.

During the summer, thunderstorms would roll through, magnificent expositions of lightening and rain. And at dusk, in the cooling moisture, bright lights would begin to appear. A shy glimmer here, a quite moment of luminosity there, until the field was aglow with the delicate white lights, dancing in and among the plants.

Was this was my most perfect moment in Vermont? Or would it be held by that winter day, when the sun fell coldly on pure white snow, brilliant blue sky overhead reflected in the ice on the lake. And across the unmarked white field in front of the house hopped a red fox.

Later that night, we threw the switch that lit the lights on a tall evergreen far out in the field. The tree lights reflected on the snow, like fireflies flying about in the cooling mist of a summer night.

Nebraska’s On My List

Driving across Nebraska was a series of slows and gos due to the road construction. Unfortunately, it was also the location of my first car scratches.

After leaving a construction zone at one point, a work truck next to me that was hauling away dirt and rocks and mud hit a rut and a pile of mud with rocks splashed across my windshield and the front of the car. Considering that the day was sunny and clear I was more than a bit surprised by the mud appearing from nowhere, especially when traveling at around 70MPH. Luckily I have nerves of steel.

(Well, in honesty, luckily no one was around me when I swerved from surprise and hit the brake.)

Today I had the car thoroughly cleaned and sure enough, the little Nebraska legacy left scratches in the door and across the hood.

Golden Girl’s no longer a pristine scratch-free virgin. Sigh.

I knew I should have gone back to the location and beat the crap out of the crew.

It was never about the guys

Jonathon juxtaposed two quotes within a posting – a serious one from a woman questioning whether she would ever meet the man of her (overly perfect) dreams; and a rather humorous exchange between guys on IRC.

In response to a comment attached to the posting, Jonathon also stated:

An alternative reading of the (ironically) juxtaposed quotes might draw attention to the earnest self-centeredness of the woman compared to the easygoing self-deprecating humor of the men. Or to the failure of thirty years of feminist theory to effect a truly fundamental change in men’s thinking.

Leaving aside questions of earnest self-centeredness and self-deprecating humor based on choice of quotes, I wanted to focus on Jonathon’s statement about feminist theory effecting fundamental change in men’s thinking.

I’m not surprised that thirty years of feminist theory, or practice for that matter, haven’t instituted major changes in the male thought processes – feminism was never about changing men’s thinking. It was always about changing women’s thinking.

We can’t say to men, “Look, you have to change your evil ways and start treating us equally”, when we’re not willing to make changes ourselves. And we definitely can’t expect to have our cake and eat it, too.

For instance, do we as women see ourselves as nurturers first, and then as unique human beings? If we do, then we women haven’t achieved the growth and change we need to make. Women are far more interesting and capable then just being baby incubators and brood mares. As part of our complexity, we can be excellent mothers and wonderful mates, but that’s not the sum and total of what we are. Until we start respecting our own uniqueness and individuality, we can’t demand that men look beyond the stereotype we’re perpetuating.

We say that society puts women into a position and keeps us there, but if all women said “Enough of this bullshit”, society wouldn’t have a chance. If we women as a whole rejected the stereotypes, refused to compromise ourselves, didn’t play the “woman” game, change – real change – would occur. And it starts with us, not the guys. It was never about the guys.

Saying that change must start with men perpetuates male-centeredness and denies women any say in this change – yet again another, albeit extremely subtle, stereotype.

And as for humor….

IRC Quote 1834:
[09:50] Hey, anyone who knows Japanese, what does “kikurimu” mean?
[09:52] “I am a preteen with bouncing breasts.”
[09:53] There are probably three or four words for that.
[09:53] Sort of like the Eskimos having so many words for snow.

IRC Quote 6918:
I don’t like pamela anderson type breasts
Their remote controls are annoying and not well documented.

IRC Quote366
“Too few women on the internet?
There are lots of women on the internet,
only most of them are naked and in JPG-format.”