Tag Archives: Walker Evans

Lecture: Zoë Druick, Documentary and the Politics of Authenticity (Walker Evans: Depth of Field Exhibition)

This talk considers Walker Evans’ photographic practice in light of international currents of documentary in the 1920s and 30s. Evans was certainly not alone in balancing the demands of working with state and corporate sponsors in his time. But why were documentary media considered to be such a central technique for political visualization of the era? And how do issues of authenticity persist in documentary practice today? Zoë Druick is Associate Dean of the Faculty of Communication, Art and Technology and Professor in the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University.

Vancouver Art Gallery

This was an extremely interesting lecture and I’m so glad it is preserved on video because I will probably go back and watch it later down the line again if I do the documentary module in level 2. Below are some brief notes from Druick’s lecture.

  • We are constantly thinking and talking about a hierarchy of ways of representing reality, some of which we think are more valid and more authentic than others. Take a look back and see how this was also the case in previous decades.
  • John Grierson in the 1920’s developed the origin of “documentary”. He defined it as “The creative treatment of actuality”. Good definition because it is so vague – it can be applied to just about any project. Grierson came up with this idea in response to political thinkers he studied with. American documentary tradition/British documentary tradition/Canadian documentary tradition were kept quite distinct but there was actually quite a flow of ideas and films and photos later between these spaces, also the USSR.
  • There are hierarchies of reality based forms:
    • Educational film
    • Government Information film
    • Industrial film
    • Newsreel
  • Documentary is a more heightened sense of authenticity than any of the other forms.
  • Real goal is to produce something which is geared to the present moment, but that will have some sort of more lasting artistic kind of ambition or accomplishment. This is done by combining information with emotion.
  • Experiments in USSR in art forms: see Sergei Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov – non fiction films of post revolution era. The focus was always on the revolution, reform of society – better for the common man, e.g. Rodchenko posters.
  • British films – documentary films took up residence in the Post Office. Made films showing the patterns of modern life, in particular social problems, political solutions e.g. film Night Mail.
  • Mass Observation group in Britain – tried to understand what ordinary working class people were thinking about the monarchy during this period (abdication of King Edward VIII). See Humphrey Spender’s Worktown People Photographs from Northern England 1937-38.
  • Indexical media that could show you something of the real world, to enable you to understand the crisis, to make it more than newsreel and different from propaganda.
  • American case – there was no official state sponsorship initially. However, US government was pushed to provide sponsorships as a result of harsh economic conditions and strife. People didn’t know what was happening across the country re the Great Depression. New Deal established relief agencies to publish information – later became FSA (1935-1938). Photos were circulated in magazines when news stories occurred. The goal was to identify the social problem and come up with a political solution.
  • Walker Evans was always distancing himself from the politics or the idea that his art was being tainted politically or was propaganda.
  • He pursues a non-intimate form of representation where he is always putting people into much larger contexts, either doing that in single images or he is doing that in sequencing of his images. Building little narratives that give you some insight into what people are going through.
Men in front of Savoy Barber Shop Vicksburg, Mississippi by Walker Evans

 

  • Signs in image are giving inter textual points of other information which help give you more context – sign on left reads New Deal Barber Shop. There is no appeal by the people in the image to the viewer – just going about their daily lives – not soliciting pity or concern.
  • Evans uses montage within single images – see A graveyard and Steel Mill in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania November 1935. One can see the whole life of a town – where they live, where they work and where they dies and it provides this huge overview and then works on two levels:
    • as the document of this particular town;
    • as a larger comment on human life.
  • By way of comparison with the film that was made by the Works Progress Administration (flooding of the Mississippi – see Erosion near Jackson, Mississippi (erosion through over-logging); The Bessie Levee augmented with sandbags during the 1937 flood, near Tiptonville, Tennessee (building up of the levees to contain the river – small people in the much larger landscape) and Forrest City, Arkansas (flood victims).
  • Conveys a current and pressing event at the time – displacement of victims, construction of camps to house and feed them. But at the same time the way e presents them in the larger landscape which includes the layers of the tents and the wood depersonalizes it again, making it into a bigger and universal image of human displacement.
  • Strategies: social problem –> political solution. Case studies – Let us now praise famous men – atypical work for Evans – only work where he names the people and treats them as a case.
  • Another strategy – spatial strategy. Highlighting the multitude of different categories of individuals who are all operating within a kind of bounded spatial location. Evans was very influenced by August Sander and his project, People of the 20th Century. Can see Sanders’ influence in Evans work – Dock Workers, Havana 1933 and Coal Loader, Havana 1933. Full frontal, unadorned form of portraiture with generic titles without sentimentality. Not images that evoke a lot of pathos.

  • Another kind of spatial narrative which Evans was inspired by is typified by the City Symphony film. The spatial organization is the city and usually the time period is a single day in the city. Not political enough according to Grierson. See Lunch Counter and Men Eating lunch on steps.
  • Subway Portraits – don’t establish a relationship between photographer and subject (because of hidden camera) – no communication. Organization in grids – cinematic style of this work – each individual image is reliant on the assemblage for its meaning. Same can be said for Labor Anonymous.
  • Evans had an abiding interest in serial imagery.
  • With regards social problems – Evans rejects politics but he is always interested in people’s struggles and putting working class people into a bigger context. He does use the case study even if under duress with James Agee.
  • Uses a lot of spatial representation. His images are often put into relation with other images that give us a sense of overall multiplicity that is some how synchronized, whether through shared social experiences or shared spatiality.
  • All this becomes a distinctive way in which Evans works through the problem of documentary, which is not just about trying to find some thing beautiful in the every day but also about exploring and trying to convey some larger meaning about what you find.
  • Documentary has come full circle. First were re-enactments, then were shot as the events were happening, now back to re-enactments again. Rarely sponsored by states any more.
  • Documentary is a way and a genre to help us discuss and think through just how we come to know what we know and what we do with what we think we know about the world.
  • Evans show a struggle to establish documentary forms that on the one hand make social statements, and on the other hand and at the same time make lasting works of art, which is a hugely challenging goal.
Reference List

Vancouver Art Gallery (2017) Lecture: Zoë Druick, Documentary and the Politics of Authenticity [user-generated content online] Creat. Vancouver Art Gallery.  8 February, 2017.  1 hr 44 min 11 sec Available at https://vimeo.com/203204777 (Accessed 14 May, 2017)

Vancouver Art Gallery (n.d.) Video Documentation [online] Available at: http://vanartgallery.bc.ca/events_and_programs/videos.html [Accessed 14 May, 2017]

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Exercise 3.3 Marginalisation

Marginalization is the act of excluding or ignoring somebody by relegating him/her to the outer edge of a group …  Furthermore, marginalization as a term is related to ‘othering’ as it is approached by post-colonial and feminist studies … According to such studies ‘othering’ is a way of defining and securing one’s own positive identity through the stigmatization of an ‘other’. Whatever the markers of social differentiation that shape the meaning of ‘us’ and ‘them’ – whether they are racial, geographic, ethnic, economic, or ideological – there is always the danger that they will become the basis for a self-affirmation that depends upon the denigration of the other group.

Agelides P & Michaelidou A. (2009)

The above definition of marginalisation serves to emphasize the various social differentiations where marginalisation can occur. In a quick search through my university’s online database various journal articles appeared about marginalisation ranging from occurrences in globalization and global inequality; public administration; and domestic violence to name but a few.

When society assigns people to groups or labels we in effect pass judgement on them, reducing their rights and powers and social status. We are probably so used to some of these groupings that we don’t even view them as such:

  • Too old/young
  • Too fat/thin
  • Wrong gender
  • Too rich/poor
  • House or car too small/too big/too old/too new
  • Wrong education – not enough degrees
  • Wrong language – too much accent/not English speaking enough
  • Persons with disabilities suffer from exclusion, aren’t fully included in society due to physical differences.
  • Visible minorities and immigrants run the gauntlet of racism and discrimination when seeking employment.
  • Those lacking long-term employment lose respect from friends and neighbours. Identity issues arise for young people who cannot find jobs or older people who are laid or forced into early retirement.
  • Concentration of poverty in urban areas results in the polarization in community composition.
  • Homelessness

Marginalization exists for a number of reasons. New technology takes away peoples’ jobs, ineffectual public and social policies, individual circumstances, market failures, and the 80/20 wage gap to name but a few (Jenson, 2000).

Five cents a spot - unauthorized immigration lodgings in a Bayard Street tenement [New York] by Jacob A. Riis (ca 1890)
Five cents a spot – unauthorized immigration lodgings in a Bayard Street tenement [New York] by Jacob A. Riis (ca 1890)

Social reform photography had its beginnings when British suffragists photographed the lives of poor women and children. Two consequences arose from this public exposure: by continually exposing the public to images of the poor in squalid conditions the concept that these people were inferior was reinforced and secondly “compassion fatigue” set in. (Warner Marien p. 203). Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine were two well known social reform photographers, photographing people in their squalid tenements in New York and young children working in factories. Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans and Jack Delano were photographers of the Farm Security Administration era documenting the depression and the struggles the American farmers were undergoing. More recently we have photographers like Chris Killip who moved away from promoting social reform to concentrating on “personal observation and interpretation of particular instances of social life” (Warner Marien, 2014: 416).

As photographers we need to take care when photographing the marginalised. We would do well to remember some of the words written in Mary Ellen Marks’s obituary in the Wall Street Journal: she had “a style that demands blending in and a cloak of invisibility”. Marks had “empathy with the marginalized and the square pegs”, and (told) “the story from their point of view”, “portrayed street kids in Seattle in a sympathetic light”,  and “you do have to push your limits, if you want a certain intimacy in your pictures” (Woodward, 2015). We need to treat the subjects with respect and empathy, preserve their dignity and encourage their true story to emerge.

Reference List

Agelides, P., & Michaelidou, A. (2009). Collaborative Artmaking for Reducing Marginalization [online]. Studies in Art Education, 51(1), 36-49. Available at http://www.jstor.org/stable/40650399 [Accessed 17 December, 2016]

Jenson, Jane (2000) Backgrounder: Thinking about Marginalization: What, Who and Why? [online] Canadian Policy Research Networks Inc. (CPRN) Available at: http://cprn3.library.carleton.ca/documents/15746_en.pdf [Accessed 18 December, 2016]

Strictly Stress Management (n.d) Marginalization for All or None – Who Isn’t in Need after All? [online] Strictly Stress Management.com. Available at: http://www.strictly-stress-management.com/marginalization.html [Accessed 18 December, 2016]

Warner Marien, M. (2014). Photography: A Cultural History (4th edition). London: Laurence King.

Woodward, R. B. (2015). Remembering Humanist Photographer Mary Ellen Mark (1940-2015) [online]. Wall Street Journal. Available at: http://www.wsj.com/articles/remembering-humanist-photographer-mary-ellen-mark-1940-2015-1432854037 [Accessed 19 December, 2016]

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Walker Evans – Depth of Field

I was so excited when I saw mention of an upcoming Walker Evans’ exhibition almost a year ago on the L’Oeil de la Photographie website. The exhibition did not disappoint! It was co-organized by the Josef Albers Museum Quaddrat and the High Museum of Art, in collaboration with the Vancouver Art Gallery. It is the first encompassing retrospective exhibition of Evans’ work since 1971 and features more than 200 black and white and colour prints from the 1920s through to the 1970s, including his iconic images made in during the Great Depression. The exhibition and its companion publication explore the transatlantic roots and repercussions of Evans’ contribution to the field of photography and examine his development of a lyrical documentary style, in which a powerful personal perspective is fused with a rigorously detailed depiction of time and place (Vancouver Art Gallery).

Untitled, Self-portrait, Cuba 133 by Walker Evans
Untitled, Self-portrait, Cuba 133 by Walker Evans

The exhibition was well laid out. Evans’ work was displayed in chronological sequence beginning with his early works which mainly focused on ‘abstractions of architecture, showing a clear interest in the constructivist style form Germany  and Russia’ (Hill, 2015:30). Images ranged from a variety of angles of the Brooklyn Bridge to high-rises in Manhattan and the Chrysler building under construction. Hill (2015: 31) describes his style as ‘more dependent on form than content’ during this period.

Wash Day, ca 1930 by Walker Evans
Wash Day, ca 1930 by Walker Evans

While Evans was overseas in Paris, he befriended Hanns Skolle and Paul Grotz and embraced the Neue Sachlichkeit concepts. Hill suggests that a better translation for this concept would be “Thingness” (Hill, 2015: 31). The Neue Sachlichkeit photographers work was characterized by images that focused on everyday and non-beautiful – recognition of the banal as worthy subject matter.

Berenice Abbott, 1930 by Walker Evans
Berenice Abbott, 1930 by Walker Evans

According to Jerry L. Thompson (2015: 95) Walker Evans did not like doing portraiture work, although he did do a large number of them in his studio. He suggests that possibly Evans only did studio portraiture in order to make money and pay the bills, but he found no art in it.

When Evans was working as an artist to photograph people, he usually chose not to rely on any formula productive of the sort of consistency desirable in a professional practice. Even when working indoors he typically started with seeing, rather than with some preconceived (and verbal) notion of what he was after.

Thompson (2015: 96)

Evans’s Cuban oeuvre (which was to provide photos for Carleton Beals’s book The Crime of Cuba) denotes the emergence of his singular style. Evans was heavily influenced by Paul Strand’s work, particularly Strand’s Blind Woman image. The Cuban project also provides a checklist of Evans’s emerging methods and demands:

  1. He continued to work in series.
  2. He appropriated files from newspapers and these were incorporated into his essays with due credit given.
  3. His 31-photo essay was negotiated separately as an independent commentary from Beals’s text.
  4. He had control of the editing, sequencing, titles and placement.
  5. He made a serious effort to control the dust jacket design of the book.
Halsted Street Chicago (Two Blind Street Musicians) 1941 by Walker Evans
Halsted Street Chicago (Two Blind Street Musicians) 1941 by Walker Evans

A portion of the exhibition was devoted to his photographs of African sculptures and the Antebellum architecture found on the American sugar plantations. Many of these images had me thinking about the movie Gone with the Wind.

Obviously the most impressive section of the exhibition was his work associated with the Farm Security Administration which ranged from 1935 – 1938.  Refusing to make images for political of propaganda purposes, Evans pursued his own agenda. “Well, a subsidized freedom to do my stuff! Good heavens, what more could anyone ask for! … I had a whole hot year tremendously productive (quoted in Mellow, p. 266)” (Hill 2015: 162).

For me the most impressive image in the exhibition would have to be the photograph of Sharecropper Bud Fields and his family at home. Hale County, Alabama, 1936. Unlike most of the other images in the collection, this photograph was at least a metre wide so the visual impact was quite stunning. Surrounded by white mat and frame, the texture of the wooden wall boards and floor just jumped out at the viewer. The subjects’ gazes are intense and candidly honest, demanding a respect which only really becomes evident when viewed at that size. Every aspect of this image is tact sharp and shouts out for the viewer’s scrutiny. I felt so engaged with this image I felt as if I was standing in the room with these people.

Sharecropper Bud Fields and his family at home. Hale County, Alabama, 1936 by Walker Evans
Sharecropper Bud Fields and his family at home. Hale County, Alabama, 1936 by Walker Evans

Having research Walker Evans for an earlier segment of this module, specifically his subway portraits, it was quite fascinating to see this collection of portraits as well as the concealed camera that he used to make these photographs in the exhibition. From various reports I had previously read, I had envisioned the camera to be a lot smaller, but it is quite large and the lens is not exactly discrete either. Such a protuberance between his coat buttons would definitely have garnered a few strange looks (which it did as evidenced by one or two of the portraits).

Contax II 35 mm camera used by Walker Evans for the New York subway portraits
Contax II 35 mm camera used by Walker Evans for the New York subway portraits

I also enjoyed Walker Evans’s series of signage photographs and his series on banal items. I was not aware that he also took photographs of this sort prior to viewing the exhibition. There were a few beer can tab images in the collection, but the collage below was my favourite, simply because of its textuality, quirkiness and originality.

Collage of beer can tabs, ca 1972 by Walker Evans
Collage of beer can tabs, ca 1972 by Walker Evans
Signs by Walker Evans
Signs by Walker Evans
Kitchen wall, Alabama Farmstead, 1936 by Walker Evans
Kitchen wall, Alabama Farmstead, 1936 by Walker Evans

There was also an entire section devoted to Evans’s Polaroids. According to the wall text he acquired a Polaroid camera in the last two years of his life and according to him, he “felt quite rejuvenated by it …True, with that little camera your work is done the instant you push that button. But you must think what goes into that. …It’s the first time, I think, that you can put a machine in an artists’ hands and have him then rely entirely on his vision and his taste and his mind” (Hill: 2015: 370).

This was a huge, well laid out exhibition to take in and is well worth a second look. The hefty (and extremely pricey – $95) accompanying publication is liberally spiced with essays and interesting backstories as well as most of the images in the exhibition, which I look forward to delving into in more depth. I certainly came away from the exhibition with a better understanding about the identity of Walker Evans.

Reference List

Hill, J.T. (2015). ‘Origins and Early Work, 1926 – 1931’ In: Liesbrock, H; Shapiro, M; Bartels, K (dir) Walker Evans: Depth of Field. Vancouver Art Gallery. London: Prestel Publishing pp 30-34.

Hill, J.T. (2015). ‘Farm Security Administration, 1935 – 1938’ In: Liesbrock, H; Shapiro, M; Bartels, K (dir) Walker Evans: Depth of Field. Vancouver Art Gallery. London: Prestel Publishing pp 162 -164.

Hill, J.T. (2015). ‘Polaroid Instant Color Photographs., 1973 – 1975’ In: Liesbrock, H; Shapiro, M; Bartels, K (dir) Walker Evans: Depth of Field. Vancouver Art Gallery. London: Prestel Publishing p 370.

Thompson J.T (2015). ‘”Quiet and true”: The Portrait Photographs of Walker Evans’ In Liesbrock, H; Shapiro, M; Bartels, K (dir) Walker Evans: Depth of Field. Vancouver Art Gallery. London: Prestel Publishing pp 95 – 100.

Vancouver Art Gallery (2016) Walker Evans: Depth of Field [online]. Available at http://www.vanartgallery.bc.ca/the_exhibitions/exhibit_evans.html [Accessed 4 December, 2016]

Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History (n.d.) Blind | Paul Strand [online] Met Museum. Available at: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/33.43.334/ [Accessed 4 December, 2016]

Images

Evans, Walker (1936) Sharecropper Bud Fields and his family at home. Hale County, Alabama [online]. Medium: 1 negative : safety ; 8 x 10 inches or smaller. Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-ppmsc-00234 (digital file from print) LC-DIG-ppmsca-12880 (digital file from print) LC-USF342–T01-008147-A (b&w film dup. neg.) LC-USZC4-4898 (color film copy transparency from print). Call Number: LC-USF342- 008147-A [P&P]. Repository: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, DC 20540 USA . Available at: http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/fsa/item/fsa1998020957/PP/ [Accessed 4 December, 2016]

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Face On: Photography as Social Exchange

One of the books my tutor recommended that I read is Face On, which is edited by Mark Durden and Craig Richardson. Face On sets out the history of documentary photography, but more importantly examines the relationship between photographer and subject. The book is divided into four essays:

  • Negotiating Power
  • Empathy and Engagement: The Subjective Documentary
  • Reality Gaps, Assumed and Declared
  • Contractualities of the Eye

The photograph is revealed as a tightly focused space of negotiation within which the politics of looking and posing … is played out.

Joanna Lowry (p. 11)

The first essay deals with the relationship between the photographer and subject and Lowry illustrates this power struggle by referencing Tracey Moffatt’s video Heaven which was shot on Bondi Beach where young men parade their bodies, strip down and change next to their cars and pose with their surfboards. Lowry (p. 13) makes the point that a social relationship exists between the photographer and subject when the subject poses in front of the camera. “Within the cultural economy of the image the pose represents the point at which value is set. This is the moment of transaction when the deal has finally been struck” (Lowry p 13). This in turn, is an act of communication in which the identities of both the photographer and the subject are formed.

face-onMikhail Baktin, a Russian philospher developed the idea of ‘dialogical text’ building upon the work of Saussure. He looked at language as an act of communication.

The utterance that was always, … bound into a relationship between two people: that was always from somebody, always directed towards an addressee, and always anticipated a response.

Lowry (p. 15)

Within dialogical text are a variety of structures of power and authority, however the binary opposite of the dialogical is the monological where there is no opportunity for response, where the speaker is in total control of the language/image. Steve Edwards, professor of art history at the Open University puts forward that the photographer’s studio is the place where the final power resides with the photographer and thus is a monological site. This is the essential binarism between street and studio. Lowry goes on to discuss Jurgen Teller’s Go-See’s project, comparing it to Rineke Dijkstra’s The Buzzclub project and then moves on to discuss the implications of when the subject is paid to pose as in Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s and Boris Mikhailov’s works. All of these photographers’ works can be categorised as have dialogical relationships. There is an ongoing struggle of power between the photographer and the subject.

The second essay deals with social documentary, concentrating quite a bit on Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Durden, author of this essay states (p. 27) that Walker Evans used to shoot his subjects “face on, upstanding, composed and commanding respect … Evans himself never shows his face”. As Evans himself stated his style was one of “the non-appearance of author, the non-subjectivity” (Durden p. 27). The quandry between documentary and aesthestics is discussed in James Agee’s writings for Let us Now Praise Famous Men, Agee finding this ‘ethically troubling’ (p. 30). This work is then contrasted by Richard Billingham’s and Tom Hunter’s portraits of working class families in which their economic struggles are portrayed.

Documentary negotiates difference and the ways in which this difference is negotiated determine its political effectivity.

Durden (p 36)

Chapter three deals with assumed identities as in the series Front by Trish Morrissey (which I commented on in my Context and Narrative module) and Jennifer Bornstein’s Interventions which are also self-portraits of Bornstein posing as siblings or family members of complete strangers. “here is the deliberate removal of identity and it’s replacement with a sequence of false alliances and friendships (Richardson p 47). These staged intimacies and constructed social communities serve to “highlight the false construct of objectivity in documentary photographic practice” (Richardson p 40). Other photographers work mentioned in this essay are Philip-Lorca diCorcia (Hustlers); Mierle Laderman Ukeles (Touch Sanitation: Handshake Ritual); Roderick Buchanan (Me and my neighbours).

The most important aspect of the photograph is its exchange of interest with the viewer, but the agreement made with the subject is nonetheless indicative of the kind of society in which it is made.

(Hunt, p 53)

The final chapter is written by Ian Hunt and deals with the work of Boris Mikhailov (Case Histories). The series is about the homeless in Kharkov, Ukraine. All the subjects were paid and photographed naked or very scantily clothed. There is a very strong sense of deprivation running through his images, but also one of a mutual contract having been agreed upon, albeit that the subjects are openly manipulated into posing. Jennifer Bornstein’s work mentioned above contrasts this in that the subjects are not paid, but willingly take part in the constructed community. “Bornstein’s authorship is to be found in what cannot be regulated in the fleeting encouters as well as in the enabling architecture of those encounters she has set up” (Hunt p 60).

There is much to learn from the old ways as they renew themselves and adapt and are reinvented against new opponents …

(Hunt p 66)

Reference List

Durden, M and Richardson, C. (2000) Face On: Photography as Social Exchange London: Black Dog Publishing Limited

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Walker Evans

Walker Evans was born in 1903 and was recruited to work in the Farm Security Administration during the Depression years producing some of his best-know work. He later became a professor of photography at Yale University. Between 1938 and 1941 Evans made a series of portraits of passengers which he shot on various subways. The series was called “Many are Called”.

Evans used a concealed camera and ran a remote shutter release down the sleeve of his coat into his hand. He was literally shooting blind. Often fellow photographer, Helen Levitt would accompany him on the subways.

Dyer (2007 p. 19) states:

The idea, … was to affirm that certain people ‘had come along and, without knowing it, placed themselves in front of a fixed and impersonal apparatus for a given time, and that all these individuals, … were photographed without the slightest human intervention at the moment the shutter clicked’.

All the subjects were oblivious to the fact that they were being photographed and Evans noticed that, alone in a crowded rail carriage, people tended to drop their guard. I have observed similar expressions when taking public transit. It is as if people think they have an invisible barrier around themselves that no one can penetrate. The blank stare at the person sitting opposite where one does not really see the person: one is simply so lost in thought that one doesn’t realise one is staring.

© Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
© Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Evans also captured tiny dramas – little interactions between passengers. Two people sharing a joke or reading a newspaper together. Dyer (2007 p 20) states that “it is precisely this detached quality of their conception and composition that gives Evans’s subway pictures their intense human appeal.”

Curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Jeff Rosenheim reflects on Evan’s subway portraits here.

Evans’ subway portraits give credence to Barthes’ notion in Death of the Author where he dispels the idea that the author’s identity and views dictate the meaning of the text.

… the modern scriptor is born simultaneously with the text, is in no way equipped with a being preceding or exceeding the writing, is not the subject with the book as predicate; there is no other time than that of the enunciation and every text is eternally written here and now.

Barthes (1977 p. 145)

Evans was shooting blind – he had no way of knowing what he was capturing until he developed his film. The only control Evans’ had over his image was when to press his shutter release and then hope for the best. The absence of any directional prompts is something that is central to traditional documentary photography.

Evans stated that the roles of “seer” and “the seen” were reversed in his portraits. The photographer or viewer (us) is being observed by the subway passengers and and has to give up control. As Jonathan Schroeder in Daniel Chandler’s Notes on the Gaze states:  ‘to gaze implies more than to look at – it signifies a psychological relationship of power, in which the gazer is superior to the object of the gaze’.

© Walker Evans Archive
© Walker Evans Archive

Now who would be the gazer in this photograph? Clearly the couple is looking directly at the photograph, totally unaware they are being photographed. Their gaze is quite direct and compelling. When I look at the photograph I have the distinctive feeling that they are looking at me.

Reference List

Barthes, Roland (1977).  Image, Music, Text. London: Fontana Press

Chandler, Daniel Notes on The Gaze [online] Available at: http://visual-memory.co.uk/daniel/Documents/gaze/gaze02.html

Dyer, Geoff (2007) The Ongoing Moment. New York: First Vintage Books

Rosenheim, Jeff. (2013) Stare. [Subway Passengers, New York City], 1938–41 Walker Evans (American) [online]. 82nd & Fifth Metropolitan Museum of Art. Available at: http://82nd-and-fifth.metmuseum.org/stare [Accessed 13 July, 2016]

Images

Evans, Walker (1938-1941) Subway Portrait [online] Minneapolis Institute of Art. Available at: http://collections.artsmia.org/art/2179 [Accessed 14 July, 2016]

Shepard, Annie (2012) Photography: Walker Evans’ NYC Subway Portraits [online]. Untapped Cities. Available at: http://untappedcities.com/2012/11/20/photography-walker-evans-subway-portraits/ [Accessed 14 July, 2016]

Bibliography

Angier, R. (2015) Train Your Gaze (2nd edition). London: Bloomsbury

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