I think there is a difference between a “Documentary worker” and a “Documenter”. Looking at Walker Evans’ work there is a suggestion – to me – that Evans was a documenter; he looked at and photographed specific objects/things, including people, in an almost compulsive way. Most, though not all, of Evans’ photographs are undertaken with the aperture closed right down, as if in the process of recording the image in front of the lens, Evans wants to provide everything in as perfect sharpness as possible in the document. Famed for the tonality and textual qualities there is a high degree of consistency in the rendition of an Evans print. Looking through the considerable archive at the Museum of Modern Art, New York there is a lack of variety in the subject matter – there are few nudes, pictures of an infant with and without clothes, but otherwise there are very few subjects that Evans appears to have tackled – but those that he has studied have come in for a singular examination with a strong technique. For example this street arrow is one of a great many Evans took of street arrows – some turning left, some turning right, some heading straight, some bifurcating; just lots and lots of them for what purpose other than perhaps the collection of street arrows, perhaps? As an aside, whilst there are a lot of people shots I don’t get the impression from looking at them that he was a social animal; his technique was to hide from his subjects, in shaded doorways or beside buildings – he even developed a mechanism whereby he hid his camera within his coat in order to be able to take people’s pictures in subways without their knowledge.
So, if Evans was a documenter then it is for the viewer to bring the narrative to the image – to explore their reaction to an image, which in Evans’ case has been said to be “American”, perhaps quintessentially American and in particular, where he will be most remembered I suspect, in the depression as part of Strykers FSA team of photographers.
This image is quite famous and at first glance it is amusing – both man and building seem to be holding each other up. However if you view the image for a while and study the various elements in the image there are some disconcerting details. The photograph is aligned to the top of the main foreground building – it has been cropped and printed to suggest that the building, whilst apparently leaning to the left, is at least level top and bottom – it occupies that largest area in the image, greater than two thirds of the photograph is occupied by this building. The secondary subject, the man, appears to be leaning into the building almost as if he is holding it up – the position of his arms suggest that he has “hold” of the building with his hands. The building is rendered in typical Evans style, beautifully textured, superbly exposed to reveal a full range of tones and the title “Scene in the Negro Quarter, Tupelo, Mississippi, USA, 1936” specifically situates it in our mind as a building in the poorer part of this city in the South of the USA in an era when poverty and deprivation were commonplace. It isn’t though a comment on the secondary subject-the black man apparently holding the building up, as if supporting it; it is more about the inevitability of the structure’s imminent collapse.
So I see it as a metaphor; the impoverished black southern man propping the economy up with the weight of his labour and so on. However once the eye moves away from that and starts to work on some of the other detail in the photograph it becomes clear that either Evans has deliberately composed the shot slightly on the skew to position the building in the foreground as being balanced by the black man or he did so in the darkroom. The clue is in the background. The large piece or architecture – looking not dissimilar to the White House is leaning in the opposite direction and when “straightened’ places the man in a more upright stance, but the building in the foreground is now considerably more at risk of collapse – see here where I have reworked it. An altogether different metaphor in my mind.
In another well know image of a building here entitled “Negro Church, South Carolina, USA, 1936 at once seem to be a very solid structure. Composed in bright sunlight the appearance provides “big triangles, big squares, strong uprights” but as Luc Sante explains in the Phaidon 55 accompanying notes “..the black churches (that) he shot in the South that year, all of them made from available wood with available tools and without blueprints.” Luc Sante , Walker Evans, Phaidon 55 p 74. When the image is studied for a short while certain troubling details become apparent (and without Evans’ attention to process and technique we might not be able to elicit this detail) we become aware of stresses in the building. The main struts are starting to bend, their supports are cracking, the doors too are showing signs of deterioration, the surrounding buildings are being propped up, leaning over starting to delaminate from their environment. Sante envisions a “.. (a) congregation within moaning a wordless lining hymn.” I see it as an empty carcass whose life is leaching into the barren land that is as bleak as the empty sky that envelops it.