An Inauguration Day Celebration of the Visual Poetry of Walker Evans
By Stuart Mitchner
It’s transcendent, you feel it. It’s there, the vanished transcendence and insistence of chance, action and fortuity. It’s there and you can’t unfeel it.
—Walker Evans (1903-1975)
Walker Evans is talking about the impact of the moment he encountered “a visual object” he knew he had to photograph. If you read those words after wading through the tide of raw imagery unleashed by the January 6 storming of the Capitol, you know what it means to feel a force so insistent that “you can’t unfeel it.”
In the opening chapter of Walker Evans: Starting from Scratch (Princeton Univ. Press $39.95), Svetlana Alpers refers to poet William Carlos Williams’s review of Evans’s groundbreaking 1938 book, American Photography (“the pictures talk to us and they say plenty”). Focusing on the poet and photographer’s shared “passionate belief in American art as they made it,” Alpers quotes from a poem by Williams: “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.”
The idea that poetry and photography have the power to enhance or sustain or even save a life resonates on January 20, 2021, whether in relation to the Capitol riots or the inauguration of the 46th president, who found therapy for a childhood disability by reciting the poetry of William Butler Yeats. The “news from poems” in this tumultuous month ranges from the “terrible beauty is born” of Yeats to President Biden’s campaign mantra by way of Seamus Haney: “Make hope and history rhyme.”
Starting from Scratch
Making is also the term Alpers stresses in revealing how “the weak role of tradition in photography” enabled Evans to present his work as something newly made and newly American; for the photographer it wasn’t “so much a matter of making it new as of starting from scratch,” thus the book’s subtitle, which has its own inaugural resonance. For Alpers, American Photographs, “the canny title of Evans’s book (made about America, made by an American, and made in an American style) says it all.”
Corrugated Tin Façade, Moundville, Alabama, the first photograph in Walker Evans, plate 1 of 143, looks so dull, so profoundly ordinary, you wonder why it’s given such prominence. Perhaps by placing the image up front Alpers is simply prompting a closer look or urging you to ask yourself why Evans chose to make a picture of so underwhelming an object in the first place. Where’s the poetry? What is it that caught his eye? And what about that pile of dirt in the foreground?
In fact, this is the “transcendent” visual object, the inspirational subject, that so excited Evans, this the “insistent” force, the nexus of “chance, action and fortuity” that “you can’t unfeel.”
Reminding us at this point that Evans was “a disappointed author as a youth” with “ambitions so high he felt unable to write,” Alpers quotes the photographer’s less elegant explanation of his motive: “When I came upon it I was principally taken in by the cross-light on the silvery corrugated tin. This was just so beautiful I set my camera up, knocked over by that surface, moved by the barren look of the false front, and how the pile of dirt added to it …. I knew in a flash that I wanted that, and found out a lot more afterward, editing it. You are trying for something, and if it’s wrong you know later on. But first you get it on the film, you garner it in.”
Even with Alpers’s insightful comments about the attraction that tin, “the humble American material,” had for Evans, and her suggestion that “the beauty here, as elsewhere, is a sign of loss — a tin false front to the building with its castaway pile of dirt,” I don’t want to be in Moundsville, Alabama, not when I can escape to 19th-century Paris in the next chapter (“Evans’s France: Real and Virtual”) with the photographer’s inspirational literary heroes Flaubert and Baudelaire, or in New York City circa 1928-1930 with the woman on Fulton Street, fierce with attitude (Plate 4), or on West 11th in Chelsea watching workmen loading the massive neon word DAMAGED on to (or off of) a truck (Plate 28). I’ve always felt the pull of Evans’s New York, and the closest I’ve ever actually felt to the photographer was imagining myself riding side by side with him on the Broadway Local, destination 137th Street (Plates 116-118).
Finding the Poetry
Walker Evans first came my way in the company of James Agee, whose posthumous novel, A Death in the Family (1957), was one of the great “transcendent, you-feel-it-and-can’t-unfeel-it” reading experiences of my life. As much as I admire Evans, I’m in awe of Agee, especially when comparing his prose with Evans’s photographs of the people and interiors (Plates 101-112) that he and Agee lived among during their month in 1936 with Alabama sharecroppers. The experience is documented, dreamed over, loved and lost and found again in Agee’s daring, peerless, supremely presumptuous 471-page work of genius, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941, 1960). As if to counter Agee’s Ahab-like quest to
vanquish the Moby-Dick of clichés, that “a picture is worth a thousand words,” Alpers juxtaposes an Evans interior (Plate 103, Table, Fireplace and Pictures…) with one of Agee’s more prosaic descriptions (“so many words” among “many, many more”), her point being to show Agee “giving up in favor of Evans” when it came to describing tableware fixed to one of the walls. “Evans’s photographs tell more because he loved less,” Alpers says, and it’s true, except for the upside that when Agee feels more, loves more, imagines more, which is often, he travels worlds beyond “telling.” It’s likely that Evans may have photographed the mirror Agee reimagines in the paragraph below, may even have felt “its vanished transcendence” and the “insistence of chance, action and fortuity” that can’t be unfelt. What Agee finds in it is the poetry “that men die miserably for lack of” —
“The mirror is so far corrupted that it is rashed with gray, iridescent in parts, and in all its reflections a deeply sad thin zinc-to-platinum, giving to its framings an almost incalculably ancient, sweet, frail, and piteous beauty, such as may be seen in tintypes of family groups among studio furnishings or heard in nearly exhausted jazz records made by very young, insane, devout men who were soon to destroy themselves, in New Orleans, in the early nineteen twenties.”
A Passionate Photographer
If Walker Evans did a Rip Van Winkle and returned to the 21st-century American scene, he’d undoubtedly be struck by the phenomenon of the camera phone and the selfie, the strange new reality in which everyone is a photographer, with people snapping up images as fast as thought, holding the magic wand up and down and all around like the more touristy elements of the mob that invaded the Capitol two weeks ago. No worries about “trying for something, and if it’s wrong you know later on. But first … you garner it in.” No, you garner and garner and Instagram it and stream it in a frenzy. Evans knew about frenzy. “With the camera, it’s all or nothing …. I became a passionate photographer. Couldn’t think of anything else. I just caught it. Like a disease.”
Alpers quotes from a 1930 journal in which Lincoln Kirstein says of Evans and photography, “the whole possibility of the medium excited him so much that he sometimes thought he was completely crazy.” In the chapter on the “Subway Portraits,” the 1938-1941 series wherein Evans snapped unknowing riders with a camera concealed in his coat, Alpers describes “a tense relationship between submission and aggression.” Evans saw the riders as “unconscious captive sitters,” of himself as “a penitent spy and apologetic voyeur … strapped to a Leica.” During a 1971 Q and A at the University of Michigan, he explained that “it was just something that attracted me more and more and more … until I really sort of went crazy with the subject. I had to make myself stop — or I’d be doing it until this day.”
While potential subjects like the corrugated tin façade that Evans found transcendentally compelling would be passed over by the multitudinous shoot-from-the-hip amateurs of today, certain visual subjects are universally irresistible. The most obvious example among the photographs assembled by Alpers is the previously mentioned Plate 28 with the caption “Workers Loading Neon “Damaged” Sign into Truck, West Eleventh Street, New York City, 1928-30.” Despite the unexciting caption, this is the sort of quirky spectacle that would have any so-called “man on the street” gaping and then grabbing his phone. The word DAMAGED is immense, all of a piece, I’m guessing at least 20 feet long and 3 feet high, two men hefting the one end, the big D, while the man on the truck steadies the big D on the far end. There it is. A ready-made message to underscore any era or occasion, like the damage recently inflicted on democracy by the losing candidate’s false claims of vote fraud.
January 20, 1961
Sixty years ago on a cold, windy, winter day, the newly elected 41-year-old American president John Kennedy’s inaugural address was preceded by the 86-year-old American poet Robert Frost’s reading of “The Gift Outright,” a poem best remembered for its opening line, “The land was ours before we were the land’s.” Kennedy chose Frost because he felt “he had something important to say to those of us who are occupied with the business of government” and “would remind us that we are dealing with life, the hopes, and fears of millions of people.”
The line of Frost’s that haunts every inaugural, however, comes from “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”: “But I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep.”
This year’s inaugural poet is 22-year-old Amanda Gorman, who was named the U.S.’s first youth poet laureate in 2017. The poem she’s written for the occasion, “The Hill We Climb,” draws from the events during the storming of the Capitol, as she told ABC News: “That day gave me a second wave of energy. The poem isn’t blind. It isn’t turning your back to the evidence of discord and division.”