Walker Evans’s last photographs – The Washington Post

Crushed Can, 1973-74. (Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Crushed Can, 1973-74. (Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

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Walker Evans is one of the most vaunted American photographers in history. His name is evoked with reverence; his influence continues to shine through in work by contemporary photographers to this day, its imprimatur now firmly established in the canon of American photography.

The photographs that Evans is known for are the seemingly straightforward images he made of sharecroppers, interiors of buildings, signs and other vestiges of life. In a way, his work catalogues things hinged to what it means to be American.

Talking about Evans’s work, the equally eminent figure in American arts, the curator, Lincoln Kirstein said:

“The most characteristic single feature of Evans’ work is its purity, or even its puritanism,” he wrote. “It is ‘straight’ photography …. Every object is regarded head-on with the unsparing frankness of a Russian ikon or a Flemish portrait ….

“This is neither a baroque nor a decorative, but a purely protestant attitude: meager, stripped, cold and, on occasion, humorous. It is also the naked, difficult, solitary attitude of a member revolting from his own class.”

By the time the author Michael Lesy came to meet him, Evans was frail, ravaged by years of alcohol and pill use and health problems. In fact, it was only a couple of years before Evans would die.

Lesy met Evans after arriving at Yale to teach. The two would go on to strike up a friendship. And although Evans was coming to the end of his life, he was still passionately interested in the act of taking photographs. But instead of using a view camera, with which most of his well-known images, he was using the relatively compact Polaroid SX-70 camera.

Lesy’s just-published book, “Walker Evans: Last Photographs & Life Stories” (Blast Books, 2022) brings together some of those SX-70 photos. Here’s what Lesy says about them:

“The SX-70’s simplicity and immediacy allowed Walker to turn his thoughts and feelings, conscious and preconscious, into images before his eyes. With a burst of light and a buzz that sounded like a mechanical bee, the SX-70 ejected prints, one after another, every time he pressed a button. In the hands of an artist as visually acute — and as preoccupied — as Walker, the color images he produced were equivalent to intellectual and emotional fingerprints.

“Existential dread — numbed by alcohol, pills, and social privilege — pressed on Walker during his last years. His refusal to succumb sent him staggering into the world to make photographs of people who were still alive. Many of them were young.

“Outside the rooms he inhabited, the world was scattered with objects on their way to oblivion. He photographed them in their passage.”

Of particular interest to me are the color portraits that Evans made with the SX-70. These are presented along with other Polaroids that deal with some of the familiar themes his earlier work dealt with. But the portraits seem more vulnerable and intimate. Evans made these portraits at parties where he mingled with friends and students. As Lesy says in the book:

“No matter who he photographed, each exposure lit up the space around him like a flare. Light and sound — the release of energy — signaled his presence, affirmed he was alive. By the end of his life, Walker was holding his camera so close to people’s faces, he may have been trying to see their souls behind their eyes.”

While Evans’ most well-known output is the kind of “straight” work that Kirstein described them as, these color photos in Lesy’s book seem to be far more intimate and less studied, more lyrical and personal. There is a real warmth and intimacy to them that the instantaneous nature of the Polaroid helped achieve. But maybe they are also that way because they are the traces of a man on his way out of life embracing his last experiences and encounters. At any rate, I find them to be a penetrating look into the art of an American luminary.

Lesy’s book extends that feeling in its second half by compiling portraits and stories of key figures in Evans’s life. This is where the above quote from Kirstein comes from. In addition to Kirstein, Lesy introduces us to a larger cast of characters, including Ben Shahn and James Agee, one of Evans’s most important collaborators. The two men are responsible for making a true American classic in “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.”

If you’re not careful, you’ll find yourself crawling down a rabbit hole reading all of these stories. That’s exactly what happened to me while paging through the book. I got so enthralled with the stories, it was an hour and a half before I lifted my head from the pages the first time I encountered the book!

You can find out more about the book, and buy it, here.

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