I went back the Pompidou Center, this time as a paying customer, to see the Walker Evans retrospective. The fact that Paris had been burning acetylene-hot for four days was a factor, because I remembered (correctly, happily) that the Pomp is air conditioned. And I wanted to see the pictures.
The graduate theses on Evans alone could probably fill the back of a Depression-era panel truck, not even touching the virtual reams on the web. I have no intention of going there. This is my uneducated, off-the-cuff reaction to the work of an acknowledged master. I came to this show as most people would come to it – with a vague idea of its importance, a readiness to appreciate tempered with the cynicism of someone who, more than once, has found work in the canon to be more pop-gun than howitzer, but without the stamina or intellectual rigor to really set out why.
I was of course aware of Evans’ shining position in the firmament of Great American Photographers. I learned that Evans was a rebel. Not quite in the same vein as Koudelka, but they are definitely spirit-brothers across the decades. There’s a video interview with Evans at the end of the show, I think made in the 70s, where he says that he basically just did what he felt like doing. One gets the sense that he didn’t much care what other people thought, which is one thing. But he also claims to have not really thought much about it himself when he did it. He didn’t start with a big project – he just did what felt right, then fit the results into some kind of project later, so the world could deal with it. This gave me some insight into just how crazy his documentary impulse might have seemed at the time. Now, we take photographs of any damned thing. But Evans was leading the pack when he indulged his interest in random store fronts. Advertising. Junk cars. Ruined architecture. Poor people, for the love of god, though I suppose he was in good company with the rest of the Farm Security Administration team, and you probably couldn’t shoot a frame in Depression-era America without having someone hard-up wander into it. But Evans wasn’t just about extremes. He not only shot the craggy, now-picturesque sharecroppers, but also the not-poor, not-rich, not-beautiful people. Just schmoes and schmoettes, schmoing along, like me and (if I dare) you.
He’s not a street photographer, though he did shoot some street photography of a kind that prefigured a million Instagram posts – random snaps of random people. Like, he’d literally set up a frame and wait for people to walk through it, snapping, I gather, pretty indiscriminately. Same with a series he shot in the New York subway, reportedly with a miniature hidden camera. These are just straight shots of whoever happened to sit down across from him. The expo text said he cropped these tightly to focus on just the individual(s). On a technical level, I wondered how he managed this with a discretely-sized lens and cropping a miniature format (though perhaps this means 35mm) in 1940s emulsion with natural underground light. The expo was not interested in answering this, nor does cursory internet probing. I preferred the subway series to his man-on-the-street snaps, perhaps because of the purity of their voyeurism.
The show text (in French and English, with the English in legible font, I’m happy to report) points out Eugene Atget’s influence on Evans, and I could see that. But from my admittedly casual exposure to Atget, Evans’ flavor of vulgar documentation is much tastier. Atget’s Paris street tableaux often have a sterile, depopulated vibe, or at least that was my impression when last I checked. As I write this, I wonder if getting older might have changed my appreciation of that work. Because part of what really turned me on with Evans was that it distills the time-machine, necromantic power of photography to a potent tincture of something you can’t get in a drugstore anymore. With his early, most-famous work, you’re definitely looking at dead people and vanished places. A lot of Atget’s empty Paris street corners from the edge of photography’s first century look much the same today, and that of course carries its own appeal. But Walker was fixated on the ephemeral flim-flam of a burgeoning consumer society. Great America. Store windows full of boots and pants and gloves, diner menu boards (comparing the prices on the two, either food was basically free or clothes were staggering expensive back then). Peeling posters for minstrel shows, which, good Christ, you hear that term used derogatively even today but they were real things, and they look to have been unspeakably awful. Even actual piles of trash and random sidewalk debris – I’m not talking picturesque or clever stuff, not Riboud’s plastic bag rabbit, just unvarnished garbage. I imagine this was a little mind-blowing at the time, and even today, it kind of makes you stop and think, dang, that’s some ugly trash, and it reminds me of a heap I passed on my way over here.
When it came to documenting the ephemeral, Evans had a particular interest in recording advertising in situ. These images are endlessly fascinating as windows into the charmingly naïve mindset of consumerism in the early part of the 20th century, when so much advertising focused on convincing you that “X” was the best version of something you needed (i.e., the soap that gets you cleanest, the razor that shaves you closest), rather than today’s general practice of associating products with fictional identities and lifestyles. Something about Evans’ interest in these signs painted on barns and pasted on walls reveals that he is, presciently, already in on the joke.
Evans seems to go out of his way to remove himself from much of the most famous documentary work – we’re talking straight on, full-light, what-you-see-is-what-he-got style, minimal style. But there are occasional flourishes, though you’d be forgiven for wondering if they’re really there, not just chance. In this photo of the Cherokee Parts Store, he catches two female profiles amidst the tires. One woman strikes a classical sculptural pose. The face of the other seems to float in darkness, isolated by a a black fur coat and the shadows of the garage beyond her. Another face looks straight into the camera. This photo is interesting as a document, but it works on the level of pure image and emotion as well. It is a good photograph without qualification.
So, if you’re in Paris, check it out. And then wander over to the David Hockney exhibition. I’d seen a Hockney show once some years back at LACMA, which left me with an overall impression of swimming pools and 1980’s Los Angeles art-world gayness. This show confirmed that recollection. I’m not honestly a big one for painting in most cases, so I don’t consider myself able to judge the work that Hockney is best known for. I did like some the portraits.
But along with his large canvases, the show also included some of Hockney’s collage-style photography, which I vaguely recalled from LACMA. Hockney shoots dozens of images of a scene and then sticks the photos (either 4 x 6-ish prints or Polaroids) onto a canvas. It’s not just analog photostitching though: he’ll include multiple views of an individual, for example, resulting in a cubist version of photography, collapsing multiple angles and moments into a single two-dimensional image. It’s cool, and I’m surprised it’s not something I’ve seen imitated much.
There was also a video version of this concept called “The Four Seasons” that’s beautiful but not really as intriguing as the photo work. It looks great but doesn’t really deliver more than conventional video would have done.
I didn’t regret taking it in.
* I wrote this back in June but I don’t like to post anything too topical or relevant so it’s only now seeing the light of the Internet. Depending on the future you’re reading this from, it might still be on or not.