The Anti-Nostalgia of Walker Evans

The Anti-Nostalgia of Walker Evans

A recent biography reveals the many contradictions of the photographer who fastidiously documented postwar American life.


In Starting From Scratch, art historian Svetlana Alpers’s biography of the American photographer Walker Evans, the images come first. All the classics are here: the iconic Great Depression–era portraits of white tenant farmers; the economic immiseration contrasting with natty, white-suited cool in his pictures from Cuba; the subway portraits surreptitiously taken using a hidden camera. They are joined with lesser-known works that index the interior and exterior architecture of an America that was already receding into history in Evans’s time. Dilapidated buildings and the tattered, upholstered violence of once glorious plantation homes are captured alongside so many wagons, statues, and show bills—an Americana that slept in its makeup the night before and looks fragile in the light of day. A corrugated tin facade, its variegated surface palimpsestic with faded ads, a pile of dirt out front. A frowning woman in a cloche hat and furs on a busy shopping street. A spiny succulent bursting out of a bucket marked “TRIPLE WHITE,” floral wallpaper, a tiny American flag.

First we see, then we read, and it feels right. Evans was the rare photographer who preferred publishing in print over being exhibited, and indeed he is best known for books like American Photographs (1938) and Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), with its text by James Agee. “From the start,” Alpers explains, “Evans imagined seeing his photographs not in, but as a book, a book about America.” A 1933 letter by Evans is notable for the way it prefigures both these later volumes and a very contemporary understanding of the photographer as someone who selects images from the multimedia stream that surrounds us today, whether or not they took them themselves:

A wonderful volume is waiting to be done which would describe America, to ourselves as well as to strangers, entirely by means of pictures—photographs of America, machines, factories, and landscapes, portraits of American faces of low and high degree, intelligent selections from news photographs and the contents of the Sunday photo-gravures.

Starting From Scratch mirrors the form of these books, what Alpers describes as “Evans’s favored design—photograph following numbered photograph with no identifying legends until the end.” But unlike his curated and carefully considered ordering of images, here the photographs are arranged chronologically, and the text is too. It traces the arc of Evans’s life: a privileged upbringing divided between Toledo, Chicago, and New York; dropping out of college and sojourning in France; his decision to take up photography and the series of architectural commissions in the early 1930s that sent him up and down the Eastern Seaboard photographing Victorian and neoclassical buildings. As Evans gained acclaim, he took on photojournalistic gigs that sent him to Cuba and the American South, working for the Farm Security Administration and documenting Union and Confederate statuary and the long fallout of the Civil War. Finally, we read about his long stint at Fortune magazine, first as a staff photographer and then as special photographic editor, and his post-retirement pedagogical turn teaching at Yale’s art school. Put another way, we see him quickly move from photographing American architecture to photographing the architectures of America: the military, poverty, segregation, and racial capitalism.

Throughout his life, Evans espoused the anti-capitalist, anti-fascist beliefs common among his milieu but famously eschewed any form of activism. For example, the Mexican painter and socialist Diego Rivera commissioned Evans to photograph his controversial Rockefeller Center fresco, which was destroyed because it depicted Lenin. As Alpers puts it, “He was in that world, but not of it.” In an April 1975 lecture given at Radcliffe College two days before his death, Evans recalled:

It was a hateful society, and that embittered all people of my age. It was very fascist unconsciously and all authority was almost insulting to a citizen. You either got into that parade, or you got a bum treatment…. I used to jump for joy when I read of those stockbrokers jumping out of windows! They were all dancing in the streets of the Village that day Michigan went off money and the banks all closed there.

At the same time, Evans’s own attitude toward money was mercenary and only slightly tinged with discomfiture. Early on, he tried selling prints of his photographs in gallery exhibitions but concluded that it would not be lucrative. In 1930, he painted his apartment walls white and wrote to a friend that he was now a professional photographer “who will do sort of advertising work on a paying basis…. I ought to explain that I am a capitalist venture.” He was up for anything, so long as it paid: One gets the sense that he was happy to follow the money anywhere, confident that whatever the assignment, he could find something that intrigued him.

That said, Evans’s personal brand was above all anti-nostalgia—his interest was in unsentimental obsolescence—even as he trafficked in it. It was only one of his many contradictions. What emerges from Alpers’s biography, whether she intends it or not, is the picture of a man who publicly decried capitalism and insisted that aristocracy was always buttressed by stolen money, yet enjoyed and profited from the social swirl of living among the wealthy. He railed against celebrity but desperately craved cultural capital and its myriad trappings all the same. Evans wasn’t unaware of these contradictions; as he put it succinctly, “I find that I am at heart an aristocrat…. I believe in cultural distinction and I also believe in social justice and they don’t go together.”

Evans, who was born too late to count as one of the Lost Generation, had frustrated writerly ambitions as well. He convinced his father to finance a year in Paris in 1926, which attracted the lifelong Francophile as “the incandescent center, the place to be…. Proust was just dead, Gide was alive.” But even then, his desire to rub shoulders with such luminaries warred with his political beliefs. He came to disdain the American set for being “moneyed, leisured, frivolous, superficial” and, worst of all, for refusing to speak French. He learned how to hover on the edge of a scene and how to melt into the background.

It was here, spending hours people-watching in literary cafés, that he honed his method of looking. Alpers quickly skims over Evans’s early years and devotes a chapter to this French year. Upon his return to New York, he would encounter the elegiac images of the French architectural photographer Eugène Atget, to whom his work is most often compared. But it was his love of literature that took him to France, which proved foundational for his intellectual and aesthetic development: “I stare and stare at people, shamelessly. I got my license at the Deux Magots,” he would tell The New Yorker in 1966.

Evans’s distinctive style, Alpers argues, is grounded in the work of his two literary heroes, Charles Baudelaire and Gustave Flaubert. Baudelaire was Evans’s idol, inspiring both his photographic bookmaking and his sensibility as a man and writer, although with rather less sex and death: “His record is of a man who in public kept his distance from being erotically aroused.” We learn how Evans manipulated space and perception to construct his own images. Alpers convincingly connects Flaubert’s hyper-descriptive, detail-elevating “airless” mode that animated the inanimate with Evans’s characteristically compressed pictorial spaces, created by quite literally cutting the foreground off the print. Flaubert’s pioneering use of the imperfect tense, meanwhile, served to craft authorial distance—“Watch me, I’m going to disappear,” Evans is repeatedly quoted as saying—and a collapsed conventional temporality. As the photographer would put it much later, speaking of himself in the third person, “Evans was, and is, interested in what any present time will look like as the past.”

Starting From Scratch is well researched, and Alpers’s heavily quotational approach provides the reader a wealth of material from Evans’s letters, lectures, published texts, and personal writings. It also provides an embarrassment of lines to read between. We learn that one of Evans’s most lauded qualities—the class-blind attitude he afforded to his subjects—was modelled after Flaubert’s “objectivity of treatment.” We come to realize, too, that Evans’s creation of perspectival and subjective distance allows him to maintain in his photographs the same remove that he did to the political upheavals of his time.

In the language he uses, Evans comes across as a man of his time, neither an anti-racist nor a bigot. The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for Alpers’s often clueless analysis of race, and it makes for uncomfortable reading at times. Early in the introduction, she enthuses that “Evans does not mark distinctions. You must remind yourself that this person is black, another dark-skinned, another light.” Must one? In a discussion of some images of minstrel show bills (which are compared to Bruegel’s proverb paintings), she writes that “the question remains whether the culture is that of those depicted or whether it has been invented by others for them.” She does acknowledge that minstrelsy is considered “deeply problematic” today, but one still wonders for whom, exactly, the question remains.

There are many things I’d hoped for from this book. Chief among them was a tracing of how images like Evans’s Farm Security Administration commissions have contributed to the media construction of the rural voter, to the crude binary of rural white/urban Black. Alpers mentions in breezy passing that Evans was “fired from government employ” but not that it was because he insisted on photographing nonwhite workers, who made up approximately a tenth of the population in the 1930s but comprised over half the farmworkers in the South. For their part, the FSA officials’ priority was reportedly to appease Southern Democrats and get the New Deal passed by presenting sympathetic (read white) images of poverty. Unfortunately, readers will learn none of this from Starting From Scratch. Instead, a reader frustrated with Alpers’s insistent privileging of the aesthetic over the sociopolitical will find much value in reading around her.

Evans’s private writings reveal that he could at times be cutting and cruel about his subjects, with more than a whiff of elitism. Alpers describes his preference for the East Coast as “a matter of old versus new,” noting that the American West, in the photographic imagination, was a mashup of what today might be termed venture capitalism and sacralizing unspoiled nature—two things that Evans despised. In an unsent letter to a supporter, he wrote, “You ought to see West Palm Beach and die…. Oh the Florida whites! Even the negroes are bad.” In a diary entry concerning some Independence Day celebrations he shot in Virginia, meanwhile, he describes the crowd as “very degenerate natives, mush faced, the pall of ignorance on all sides. Photographed the most gruesome specimens.” Remarkably, none of this leaked through to his images, which are widely celebrated for the way they endow dignity upon the most marginalized of subjects.

Some of the anecdotes related in the book work to shadow this perception, despite Alpers’s best attempts at hagiography. Among Evans’s best-known images—including one that would become inextricably linked with the Great Depression—are the four portraits of Allie Mae Burroughs, a white sharecropper’s wife. She is photographed against the wood-planked wall of her home, her face furrowed by both worry and irritation. Alpers relates that, in a later interview, Burroughs “speaks of how she had avoided the picture-taking but finally gave in” before comparing the portrait to Flaubert writing about a servant woman. To be fair, Evans never pretended to either politics or empathy. But it becomes clear that despite associating with a nominally progressive crowd, he was not for the downtrodden so much as he was against (his fellow members of) the bourgeoisie.

One gets the sense that Evans cared less about people and the intimate textures of their lives than about what they represented. Earlier, I described him as a photographer of architectures, but he’s equally a photographer of archetypes. He isn’t taking a picture of Allie Mae Burroughs so much as he is recording a rural white woman, a poor tenant farmer, Alabama, and the South—and all of his subjects are synecdoches for America.

In the afterword, Alpers writes of Evans’s practice that “when he stops, the book stops. It is meant as a book about making, not about reception.” This reductive approach does Evans—who emerges as more flawed and more interesting than Alpers allows—a disservice. He wasn’t only making photographs; he was also constructing the visual vocabulary of a country and how it saw itself. A biography that took these structural issues into account might have done the same instead of ultimately just praising a single famous man.

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Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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