Speaking of the work of Evans, a preeminent figure in American arts, Curator, Lincoln Kirsten said:
“The only distinguishing feature of Evans’ work,” he wrote, “is its purity, or even its puritanism.” It’s a ‘straight’ depiction…. Everything is seen head-on with the uncompromising frankness of a Russian ikon or a Flemish portrait….
“This is not a Baroque or Ornamental attitude, but a purely Protestant attitude: weak, abstract, cold and, at times, humorous. It is also the naked, difficult and solitary attitude of the member who revolts from his class.”
By the time author Michael Lacey came to meet him, Evans was frail and devastated by years of alcohol abuse, birth control pills, and health problems. In fact, it has only been two years since Evans passed away.
She met Lizzie Evans after arriving at Yale University to teach. The two will continue to form a friendship. And even though Evans was nearing the end of his life, he was still deeply interested in the act of taking pictures. But instead of using the viewfinder, which most of his best-known photos had, he was using the relatively compact Polaroid SX-70.
Lizzie’s just published book, “Walker Evans: Recent Photographs and Life Stories(Blast Books, 2022) Collects some photos of the SX-70. Here’s what Lacey says about them:
“The SX-70’s simplicity and immediacy allowed Walker to transform his thoughts and feelings, conscious and unconscious, into images before his eyes. With a burst of light and a hum like a mechanical bee, the SX-70 emitted fingerprints, one by one, every time he hit a button. In the hands of a visually sharp—and busy—artist like Walker, the color photographs he produced were the equivalent of intellectual and emotional fingerprints.
“Existential dread — drugged with alcohol, pills, and social privileges — pressured Walker through his later years. His refusal to give in led him to stagger into the world to take pictures of people still alive. Many of them were young.
“Outside the rooms he inhabited, the world was scattered with things on their way to oblivion. He photographed them on their way.”
Of particular interest to me are the color photographs that Evans drew with the SX-70. These are presented alongside other Polaroids that deal with some of the familiar topics covered by his previous work. But the photos look more vulnerable and intimate. Evans painted these pictures at parties where he mingled with friends and students. As Lacey says in the book:
“No matter who photographed it, each exposure illuminates the space around it like a glow. Light and sound—the release of energy—indicate its presence, confirming that it is alive. By the end of his life, Walker was holding his camera close to people’s faces, perhaps trying to see Their souls are behind their eyes.”
While Evans’ most famous output is the “straight” type of work Kirsten describes, these color images in Lacey’s book feel more intimate and less studied, and more lyrical and personal. There is a real warmth and intimacy that the momentary nature of the Polaroid helped bring about. But perhaps they are also that way because it is the traces of a man on his way out of life embracing his recent experiences and encounters. Anyway, I find them an insight into the art of American illustrious art.
Lizzie’s book expands this sentiment in the second half by assembling images and stories of the main characters in Evans’ life. This is where the above quote from Kirstein comes from. In addition to Kirstein, Lesy introduces us to a much larger cast of characters, including Ben Shahn and James Agee, one of Evans’ most important lieutenants. The two men are responsible for making a true classic American film in “Let us now praise famous men. “
If you’re not careful, you’ll find yourself crawling down a rabbit hole reading all these stories. This is exactly what happened to me while browsing the book. I was so impressed with the stories, it was an hour and a half before I lifted my head from the pages the first time I came across the book!
You can learn more about the book and buy it, over here.
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