Walker Evans: Starting From Scratch by Svetlana Alpers

That Svetlana Alpers has devoted the first 143 pages of her new book, Walker Evans: Starting from Scratch, to full-page reproductions of Evans’s photographs without captions suggests the importance she places on images, while signalling her intention to write “a book about making, not about reception.” Alpers informs us that, without our necessarily knowing it, we have been experiencing many of the same photographs that appear in Evans’s seminal book American Photographs, 1938, the exception being that her arrangement presents the images in the order of their making. Such adherence to chronology is important to Alpers for several reasons, not the least of which is that it allows her to closely observe Evans’s evolution. It also echoes the subtitle of her book—a sort of return to a degree zero, beginning with the recognition that photographing the world does not stem from tradition but rather from a different way of looking. There is, too, Evans’s starting all over—his setting aside the pen in favour of the camera. And then there is the “quintessential situation of America” and what we might term, with Evans’s title in mind, the “Americanization” of photography. What’s more, there is Alpers’s own turn—her switch from the study of historic painters such as Rubens, Velázquez, Rembrandt and Tiepolo to Evans, and, finally, from Europe to America.

Throughout, Alpers’s straightforward writing style complements Evans’s photographic approach. She attributes the very look of his photographs, in part, to a type of cultivated distance, his resistance to judge or intervene in any overt way. This sensibility is reflective of Evans’s insistence on working within the constraints and limitations posed by so-called straight photography, his adherence to divesting his own subjectivity as much as possible to enable the medium to speak for itself. Like the Baudelairean flaneur whom he emulated, Evans preferred to remain in the background, ideally unseen. Flaubert was another model; his texts inform Evans’s photographs: “I believe in staying out, the way Flaubert does in his writing,” Evans wrote. With such models in mind, Evans was not immune to accusations of nostalgia, especially combined with his seeking out subjects of his own present time that he then managed to represent as other—as belonging to the just-past, recalling the Benjaminian notion of objects on the verge of obsolescence. Hence, former MoMA Curator of Photography John Szarkowski’s remark that, at times, it was difficult to determine whether Evans had documented or constructed the America of his early years.

Walker Evans: Starting from Scratch, by Svetlana Alpers, Princeton University Press, 2020, 416 pages, hardcover, $39.95.

In terms of photography, a prime influence was Eugène Atget. Evans shared an affinity with Atget for the just-past of architecture, for liminal subjects but also for cemetery sculpture and civic monuments as readymade subjects for photography, a sort of “doubling up on stillness,” as Alpers puts it. For Evans, Atget generated an anxiety of influence and he felt a need to exorcise this: “I don’t like to look at too much of Atget’s work because I am too close to that in style myself.” It is easy to understand Atget’s influence, but it was difficult for Evans to articulate just what he found so compelling: “when Atget does even a tree root, he transcends the thing.” That Atget achieves this apparently without alteration is what makes it that much more difficult for Evans to verbalize. Henceforth, “transcendence” will serve him as the one word to describe things beyond description.

If Atget were someone to model himself after, Evans required, then, something and someone to measure himself against, and that conveniently turned out to be the romanticism of Alfred Stieglitz. In a sense, by his very example, Stieglitz offered Evans a gift, albeit a negative one. Although he praised Stieglitz’s early work from the turn of the century, he was dismissive of his late style: “But those pictures of clouds are nothing to me, absolutely nothing. And he thought they were the greatest thing he ever did.”

Not one to succumb to camera effects and trickery, Evans felt that photography should be straight, or, as he aptly phrased it: “Photographs should be photographic.” That this was a belief shared by Clement Greenberg should make you pause and think. On the surface, Evans’s statement seems to echo Greenberg’s modernist credo about “truth to materials,” but it does so only partially, since Greenberg himself recognized photography as a special case. In an insightful review of Edward Weston, Greenberg sites Evans as someone who has come to the recognition that the uniqueness of photography lies not in the medium but in the subject: “In more ways than one, photography is closer today to literature than it is to the other graphic arts. The final moral is: let photography be ‘literary.’”

One of the more insistent readings Alpers brings to Evans concerns his photographing the lingering remnants of the Civil War. Of course, when it came to representing the Civil War, Mathew Brady preceded Evans, and so it is to Brady that we turn for the definitive recording of that event. Alpers initiates a type of corrective when she states that consequently Evans has come to be “seen instead as the photographer of the Great Depression.” Alpers informs us that Evans made it a point to photograph the Black quarters of whatever city he visited, along with sites commemorative of the Civil War, including Union and Confederate statuary. At times, Evans’s documentation of architecture, especially interiors, being characteristically devoid of people, often suggests their presence, as with Breakfast Room at Belle Grove Plantation, White Chapel, Louisiana, 1935. This otherwise empty plantation- house interior Alpers reads as harbouring the traces of an agricultural world once worked by slaves and whose “emptiness is an aftermath of the Civil War.”

Alpers compares two particular photographs that Evans made: one is a statue of General Tilghman from the military park at Vicksburg, Mississippi, 1936; the other is of a hammered brass statue of King Giele, God of War, from Benin, 1935. Tilghman is depicted standing next to his horse, sword raised to the sky, while King Giele is naked, holding two raised swords. An unusual comparison, to say the least, that initially reads as contrived. But then, Alpers reveals her bias, admitting that this particular reading “is the result of my attentive eye, not the eye of the man who made the photographs.” And perhaps herein lies the aporia of photography itself: that photography, despite its instrumentality, its literalness, lends itself, like the other arts, to multiple interpretations. The epigraph for the afterword says it best: “Photography has nothing whatsoever to do with ‘Art’. But,” Evans continues, somewhat pensively, and from which the epigraph derives, “it’s an art for all that.” ❚

Walker Evans: Starting from Scratch, by Svetlana Alpers, Princeton University Press, 2020, 416 pages, hardcover, $39.95.

Arni Haraldsson is an artist, writer and an associate professor of photography at Emily Carr University of Art & Design in Vancouver.