Uncomfortably Beautiful

WALKER EVANS IN NEW YORK

More than eighty of Walker Evans’s iconic black-and-white photographs of Southern sharecroppers and Northern industrial towns-taken under the auspices of the Farm Security Administration in 1935-36-are on display at the UBS Gallery in Manhattan through November 9. The exhibit is noteworthy in its subject matter and its artistry. By incorporating digital techniques that allow for crisp ink-jet prints and previously unattainable enlargements, it would have been a revelation to Evans himself.

Organized by the Yale University School of Art, the exhibit is curated by John T. Hill and Sven Martson, both of whom worked with Evans (1903-75). That collaboration is pivotal because the exhibit relies on technologies unavailable to Evans that could conceivably be used to alter his work. As Hill observes in a program note, “In the world of ink-jet printing, digital files are capable of stunning brilliance as well as remarkable mischief.” Whereas Evans employed gelatin silver prints (a number of which are included to offer continuity and contrast in the exhibit), the show features digital representations made from Evans’s original negatives. One can only imagine what he would have achieved using these newer techniques. Still, brilliance rather than mischief reigns in the UBS exhibit. As New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman wrote (August 23), “These are, I must say, almost uncomfortably beautiful” pictures.

Photography is related to the plastic arts in that a photographer’s original negatives can be reused, not simply by the artist but by subsequent printmakers. The digital process employed here allows Hill and Martson not only to enlarge Evans’s photos-some of them to billboard size-but to draw out details not apparent in the original gelatin silver prints. In one instance, Hill and Martson splice together two negatives, creating a novel panorama of a 1936 street scene in Selma, Alabama. As Hill acknowledges, these are his interpretations of Evans’s work. Stunning they are, nonetheless, some for their sheer size, some for their fluid clarity, and some even when they fail.

The subjects range from the austere architecture of rural Southern churches, to decaying cemeteries, to Depression-era company towns in West Virginia and Pennsylvania. There are junkyards, barbershops, and Civil War monuments, in both the Blue and Gray States. Evans had an early appreciation for the artistry of advertising signs and for their role as sociological markers. There are a number of examples here.

Most unforgettable in the UBS exhibit-their beauty making Kimmelman “uncomfortable”-are the photographs (many of them enlarged) of white sharecropper families from Hale County, Alabama. These constituted the heart of Evans’s classic collaboration with James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. In 1935, Evans and Agee were on assignment for Fortune magazine, that anvil of the capitalist press. For a brief interlude, Fortune’s editors supported the New Deal’s efforts to alleviate rural poverty, and they assigned Evans and Agee to report on Southern tenant farmers in Alabama. But they insisted that the subjects of the study be white farmers, even though these constituted a clear minority of the state’s sharecroppers. It was only with some difficulty that Evans and Agee even located three such families. Along with the photographs of Dorothea Lange and the characters of John Steinbeck’s novels, Evans’s photographs of these tenant families became emblems of the Great Depression. To find them anchoring a major exhibit in the lobby of one of the world’s largest financial services institutions is an experience in cognitive dissonance.

The three families immortalized in Evans’s photographs and Agee’s report are the Tingles, the Burroughses, and the Fieldses. Thanks to the digital process, Evans’s portrait of Katie Tingle, the mother of the poorest family, is here enlarged and elongated to thirty-two inches high by ten inches wide. Its vertical pose and monochromatic tones are reminiscent of a grisaille painting that features a sculpted prophetess on the portico of a Gothic cathedral. The Tingles had experienced a disastrous year, and those defeats are etched in Mrs. Tingle’s face and posture. She is draped in a bulky covering, but appears exposed in her despair. Agee described her gown as “the most primitive sewn and designed garment I have ever seen,” “a tent too short to cover your nakedness.” Mrs. Tingle’s dark eyes look beyond the frame, as if she has already set out for another land.

The portrait of Allie Mae Burroughs (see page 24) serves as trademark for the exhibit. This reticent but dignified woman was photographed outside her family’s unpainted shack. Its wooden beams seem to underscore the raw experiences of her life. In 1942, Lionel Trilling described this portrait as “one of the finest objects of any art of our time.” He said that Burroughs “simply refuses to be an object of your ‘social consciousness.’ She refuses to be an object at all.” Enlarged, the portrait is all the more haunting. At whatever size, it deserves its permanent place in the American psyche-and perhaps the Oval Office.

The third group is the Fields family. Bud Fields, Allie Mae’s father, is here pictured with his second family (he was fifty-nine at the time). This is perhaps the most remarkable of the enlarged photographs in the exhibit-fifty inches wide, forty high. Evans took this portrait of Fields, his wife Lily, three children, and Lily’s mother indoors using a flash. Its sudden strobe seems to have frozen their expressions, glancing back from their eyes.

Agee called Bud Fields the shrewdest of the tenant farmers. In this portrait, Fields firmly holds his half-naked son between his legs. He himself is without a shirt, a bandana covering the skin cancer on his shoulders. Lily is seated to the far left on the family bed. She cradles the younger daughter, who is sprawled out asleep. To their right stands Ruby, the older daughter. This young girl appears, as if an angelic vision, positioned between her mother, sister, and stepfather. Seated to the far right is Miss Molly, Lily’s mother. She completes the generations, and is the only person in the picture not barefoot. She seems to be looking at Evans defiantly. It is Ruby, though, who centers the tableau. Her face speaks of innocence and of abandonment-if not in the family, from heaven. Her legs are marked with open sores, the toes of her right foot are clenched, and there is only a fading light in her gaze.

This photograph reminded me of Velazquez’s Las Meninas in the Prado, although its subject matter is decidedly not royalty. Perhaps that is because Evans manages to preserve the dignity of his subjects in spite of their plight, and they come to represent a people.

Not all the enlargements in the exhibit succeed. Those of inanimate objects sometimes resist perspective, and some of the grainier originals tend to devolve into layers of pixels. Even when the viewer steps back to regain focus-something Evans’s smaller prints establish immediately and with a sense of the whole-there is a distracting awareness that you are being forced to adjust and readjust your vision.

The exhibit does a wonderful job of providing other insights into the many facets of Evans’s technique and career. There are examples not only of his original prints, but of his many books, magazine publications, and even some of his cameras. All these reinforce the scope of his achievement.

James Agee wrote that being associated with Evans had been one of the greatest “breaks” of his career. For anyone interested in photography, the application of digital techniques to Evans’s original work-an application he would no doubt have relished-is a similarly extravagant and auspicious occurrence.

Published in the 2006-10-06 issue: 
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Patrick Jordan served as a managing editor for The Catholic Worker and for Commonweal.

Also by this author
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