“If the thing is there, why, there it is.” Happy Birthday, Walker Evans

Sadie Tingle, Alabama, 1936.















walker-evans 2







That last photo is Walker Evans’ innovative perspective of the parade for Charles Lindbergh after Lindbergh successfully crossed the Atlantic in 1927. It’s one of the first photos Evans took, and shows that he had a “good eye” from the start. A conventional photographer would have shown the parade, the cheering crowds, the scope and size of the event, Lindbergh himself. Evans, however, was struck by the backs of the marching band, and the carnage of ticker-tape. The empty aftermath.

And the photo above that one I love in particular, since I love Carole Lombard, have that movie poster on my wall, and Carole Lombard with a shiner is my Twitter avatar.

Walker Evans captured America at a certain time of upheaval, gigantic events which had wide-sweeping consequences, for the world, yes, but more importantly, for individuals. It was a time of both technical innovation and abject poverty. He focused on American’s homes, the objects in the homes, the rusty bed-steads in the shacks of the poor and destitute, the stoves in the corner, the kitchen utensils. Beds were important. Beds represent a respite for the economically-ravaged people he photographed. But Evans, too, just had an eye for the detail, the one essential thing that would make a photograph pop. It is a remarkable record of what America looked like at the time, its cars, its billboards. Ordinary life was what he was after. You can feel the dust in the air from the unpaved roads, smell the sugary soda from the fountains, the quiet of those small towns. But he was also an urban street photographer, taking pictures of women on subways wearing little hats, gossiping, collapsed against one another during the commute, lunch rooms crowded with office workers, the vast bustle of city life. It’s an amazing archive, an incredible historical record.

In 1936, James Agee, film critic, novelist, reporter, asked Walker Evans to come down to Alabama with him to document the life of sharecroppers for Fortune magazine. Hard hard times in America, all around. Evans’ photographs (Agee and Evans stayed with three tenant-farmer families, so you get to know the faces) are haunting. The direct gaze. The dirty children. The hovels. The gaunt cheeks. The hard-bitten eyes. Evans initially felt uncomfortable with the assignment, photographing people in such misery. He worried he was exploiting them. A common issue with photographers who go into terrible areas. But the issue is two-fold: documenting horrors brings news of events to the world, makes it palpable, energizes people to “get involved”, whatever that might mean. (One remembers Kevin Carter’s horrifying photo of the starving child in the Sudan curled up on the ground with a vulture crouching nearby. While there are conflicting reports on how that photograph came to be, Carter won a Pulitzer Prize for it. It was one of those photos, like the “napalm girl” that sears into your brain once you’ve seen it. The horror of humanity. Carter committed suicide. He had photographed many horrible things, executions, torture. His suicide note spoke of not being able to bear all of the things he had seen, they had blotted out the possibility of joy. AND, as a photographer, his job was not to change things, or provide aid. It was to document, to bear witness. That’s it. This is an ethical struggle that Walker Evans felt acutely as he photographed these families in dire straits.)

The collaboration with Agee eventually became, of course, the classic of American literature/photography, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Agee’s prose is incantatory and emotional, free-flowing and high-flung, tapping into the human condition and the terrible beauty of our drive to survive. Here is an excerpt:

Each is drawn elsewhere toward another: once more a man and a woman, in a loneliness they are not liable at that time to notice, are tightened together upon a bed: and another family has begun:

Moreover, these flexions are taking place everywhere, like a simultaneous motion of all the waves of the water of the world: and these are the classic patterns, and this is the weaving, of human living: of whose fabric each individual is a part: and of all parts of this fabric let this be borne in mind:

Each is intimately connected with the bottom and the extremest reach of time:

Each is composed of substances identical with the substances of all that surrounds him, both the common objects of his disregard, and the hot centers of stars:

All that each person is, and experiences, and shall never experience, in body and in mind, all these things are differing expressions of himself and of one root, and are identical: not one of these things nor one of these persons is ever quite to be duplicated, nor replaced, nor has it ever quite had precedent: but each is a new and incommunicably tender life, wounded in every breath, and almost as hardly killed as easily wounded: sustaining, for a while, without defense, the enormous assaults of the universe.

Walker Evans’ contribution to the 20th century cannot be measured.


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19 Responses to “If the thing is there, why, there it is.” Happy Birthday, Walker Evans

  1. Desirae says:

    I’ve seen some of these, though I didn’t know who took them. What you say about the ethical quandaries of this kind of photography is something I’ve thought about a lot. There’s always that risk of using the subjects, of objectifying. Bearing witness is important, yet I wonder if it can be enough. Like, could I really take a photograph of a burning child without dropping the camera to help her? Yet the people who do this kind of journalism often operate from deep sensitivity and anger at cruelty – look at Kevin Carter. Look at Iris Chang. Carrying that weight killed them both. I’ve never even been able to read The Rape of Nanking, much less write something like it. There’s no easy answer. And maybe not even a right answer.

    • sheila says:

      Oh God, Iris Chang. That still upsets me. I read her book and found it almost impossible to get through and I cannot imagine what it felt like to write it.

      I would have a very difficult time keeping my head about me and photographing horrors.

      // Yet the people who do this kind of journalism often operate from deep sensitivity and anger at cruelty //

      That’s a good way to look at it. It’s like Victor Klemperer said in his journal in Germany in 1933: “I must bear witness.”

  2. Desirae says:

    Oh, and I’d intended to mention – have you ever seen Weegee’s photography. Such an incredible, unvarnished look at life in that period. And at night, too. All those after sunset insomniac hours where the daylight seems so far away.

    • sheila says:

      I love Weegee! I actually went to a Weegee exhibit a couple years ago at the International Center of Photography in New York and it was SO FUN. Let me see if I can find the post.

      There’s that one photograph of fire trucks dousing a fire in a gigantic building – do you remember that one? Let me track it down.

  3. sheila says:

    Here’s the post! That photo I mentioned is called “Simply Add Boiling Water,” which you probably know already – but it’s such a funny and strange juxtaposition. It’s almost too good to be true.


  4. Todd Restler says:

    Great photos. I am not really aware or educated about famous photographers, though I do appreciate their work, but I recently saw a documentary called Finding Vivien Maier on HBO which was fascinating. Have you seen that Sheila, or are you aware of her?

    This woman was basically one of the best and most prolific photographers of all time, only nobody knew it until after she passed away. Really interesting and if you Google her work it’s incredible.

    • sheila says:

      Todd – Yes, I saw that doc – and I had actually gone to a show of her work prior to seeing the doc. It’s great street photography! I love it! and yes, reminiscent of some of Walker Evans’ stuff – capturing people out and about, unaware they are being photographed.

      While her story is extremely interesting, and she is a fascinating woman – unfortunately I had serious issues with that documentary and look forward to another movie being made about her life and work.

      This New Yorker article expresses really well my serious reservations about that film.

      Reservations is probably a too gentle word. There’s more like this out there. Jessa Crispin has also written about it at her site (Book Slut), which you can see here – with some good links to other critics who had problems with the form of the film. http://www.bookslut.com/blog/archives/2014_06.php

      As a spinster-artist-type myself, I found the attitude of the film towards its subject condescending, insulting and unimaginative. Like I said, I look forward to a better documentary about her one day – because she deserves it.

      But outside of the doc, I agree that Maier’s work is extraordinary (if you can go to a gallery show of her work – I highly recommend it! Because then you get to see those photos LARGE). And I love the story itself, of a woman doing this thing, and piling up boxes of negatives, that are discovered much later. It’s really interesting.

    • sheila says:

      (Also, the fact that the doc was made by the guy who made the discovery … it felt shady. Not that he shouldn’t try to protect his discovery, but I questioned his motives. Sure, the story of how he found all that film is fascinating. Let someone else tell that story – not him. Otherwise, it starts to feel like the guy is working his own promotional/publicity arm. It was a huge turn-off.)

      • Baceseras says:

        Have you seen The Vivian Maier Mystery? Doc made the same year, I think, as Finding VM. Tells the story as well as or better than Finding, and presents as fine and ample a visual anthology of Maier’s works — without presuming that there was something wrong with her. That, and not the commercial motive, is what I dislike about Finding: it slides from speculation to diagnosis to verdict on Vivian Maier; pegs her even while exalting her. The Vivian Maier Mystery lets the mystery be.

        (This is where I add, Long time reader, first time commenter.)

  5. Todd Restler says:

    Wow, really interesting thoughts on the film, and the excerpts at Bookslut (she beat you to that blog title I guess!) are fascinating. I love this:

    “the exploitation of Vivian Maier’s life and work needs to be placed in the larger context of street photography and consent. What are the ethical guidelines a street photographer should follow? Does anyone still take ethic and privacy / personal space seriously in this age of smartphones and Google Glass and surveillance?”

    I felt uncomfortable during the movie about the way she was being portrayed. She may have been “eccentric” by some standards (and who isn’t, lets be honest) but it seemed like that was supposed to be some big character flaw. I mostly just wished she was there to talk and represent herself instead of listening to recollections of people who really didn’t seem to know or understand her very well.

    After a while, I started to tune out the comments on Vivien Maier the person and instead started becoming mesmerized by her work. It was so interesting how she had a camera that she could look down into to focus, so her subjects did not know they were being photographed. The pictures show people and life as they are, not posing as you get in most picture. And I felt voyeuristic yet couldn’t look away.

    It could be argued in a sense that she is being violated and exploited now in much the same way that she violated the subjects of her photos. Yet the photos are amazing and I am very happy I got to see them. (And yes I should try to see them in person.) Just weird, interesting issues at play here.

    • sheila says:

      I totally agree with you about that quote about putting the photographs into a larger context. YES.

      And issues of exploitation aside: Or along those lines – these are sometimes queasy-making choices a film-maker makes. Like the Maysles’ brothers did with the Edies in Grey Gardens. Some were embarrassed, or angry at the “exploitation.” I feel like it was honest, and Little Edie knew what she was participating in, and she ran TOWARDS the camera rather than away from it. I don’t pity her. I have compassion for her. But I felt like the approach of Grey Gardens allowed for that mixture of reactions … it wasn’t “coming down” on one side or there other (which is why I think people were so disturbed by it – felt so uneasy about it). Are you making fun of these people? Well, maybe a little bit, but also maybe not at all. It’s life. We don’t all fit into nice little categories. Little Edie is not a “freak.” She is a human being, who had some hard knocks, who grew up in kind of a nutty family, and whose life took a form eventually that she could NEVER have predicted. She also had an amazing sense of style, and a true love of performing. Was she maybe mentally ill? Sure. So? Is there only one way to portray people who suffer? So many people are so condescending towards their subjects, or they are didactic. The Maysles brothers aren’t. And people aren’t used to that. I don’t know … books have been written about this topic – photographs, documentary films – and I agree – it brings up a lot of really interesting issues.

      And this connects with street photography too – taking pictures of people who are unaware they are being photographed. Are you crossing a line? Are you taking advantage of these people? What are YOU getting out of it? (Perhaps the most interesting part of the Maier story is she just threw the rolls of film into a box. It was the act of TAKING the picture that seemed to release something in her – although we’ll never know.) Mary Ellen Marks’ Streetwise is a similar type of project – the kids she photographed were MINORS. But they were living on the streets of Seattle. She befriended them. They opened themselves up to her in ways that are still astonishing. Is it self-serving? I mean, Marks made her name with those photos and that documentary, right? So yes: these are all interesting issues.

      In re: Vivien Maier: I felt there was a very condescending conservative even patriarchal attitude in the film about Vivian Maier’s “eccentricity.”

      “A NANNY took these photos????” he says at one point, agog. As though nannies are just dumb-asses not capable of anything. Charlotte Bronte was a nanny, you piece of shit.

      Dear director, you need to understand that women do cool cool cool shit, and have been doing so for centuries, by stepping out of what role MEN want them to play and choosing their own way. And THEN they are thanked for it by total oblivion and then a man comes along eventually to EXPLAIN her to us. Women’s stories have been told by men ad infinitum. And they get stuff wrong all the time, and they don’t LISTEN when they are told they get stuff wrong.

      Throughout history, women who want to get shit done have removed themselves from domesticity and its entanglements because it seems the only option. Some of the most powerful and intelligent and fearsome women in history have been Abbesses, living in seclusion and chastity, but with as much power as a Bishop. Practically political power. Could she have done that as an illiterate beggar-wife living in a shack with 10 kids? No, she could not.

      It remains a valid choice, even though nobody wants to hear it, and people come at you with pitchforks from all sides.

      Also, frankly, I found the speculation in the film that Maier had been abused or raped, since she didn’t like to be touched by men, absolutely reprehensible. There is no direct evidence that anything like that occurred.

      And it’s just another way to “explain” an eccentric who has no interest in men – because there’s got to be SOME neurotic explanation why a woman would “sacrifice” her whole life (and by “whole life” is implied men, marriage babies – the only valid option for women).

      Once again: women boiled down to how they “deviate” from a norm – a norm they had no say in setting up in the first place.

      It would have been interesting to see a documentary about Maier directed by, say, Mary Ellen Marks (who recently died, and come to think of it she shows up in the doc giving a positive assessment of Maier’s work). But this bozo seemed to use the film to try to cement his place/financial security as the guy who discovered her and then allowed speculation into the doc that she MUST have been raped at one point – because being raped is the ONLY conceivable explanation for why a woman would choose to live outside the glorious company/protection of men … because we all know men are so wonderful and add so much to women’s lives!

      Yeah. That doc pissed me off. :)

      But Maier herself was fascinating. I mean, the French accent! She was a kook!

      • Desirae says:

        I haven’t seen the Maier documentary, but this reminds me of the way critics have treated Emily Bronte. She wrote a very famous novel about a destructive love affair, so the speculation about her personal life runs rampant. Including such nonsense as speculating that she was sleeping with her own brother. As if Wuthering Heights couldn’t just be the work of a powerful, unusual imagination. No, she must be explained: she must be contained.

        • sheila says:

          Oh God, yes, the poor Bronte sisters get it from all sides. Their entire lives have been pathologized, because … it’s inconceivable that they could have just been a hugely creative bunch who decided to go for it, with their creativity, as opposed to making compromises like good dutiful women?

          Emily definitely gets the worst of it, because she had the temerity to never get married and die so young – AND only write one novel. and WHAT a disturbing novel. Jane Austen it is NOT.

          // As if Wuthering Heights couldn’t just be the work of a powerful, unusual imagination. No, she must be explained: she must be contained. //

          That’s it, exactly.

          I came across this recent Harper’s essay by Rebecca Solnit, that kind of relates.


          Pretty powerful piece, and I agree with every word. Hadn’t heard it put quite so plainly – at least not recently.

          • Desirae says:

            That’s a great article, and the author has written a book called ‘Men Explain Things to Me’ which is hilarious.

            The sad thing is I’d love, say, a good movie about the Brontes because they were such interesting women. And particularly I find Emily to be fascinating; such a quiet woman but with an incredibly stubborn bent to her personality. I mean: “My sister Emily loved the moors. Flowers brighter than the rose bloomed in the blackest of the heath for her; out of a sullen hollow in a livid hillside her mind could make an Eden. She found in the bleak solitude many and dear delights; and not the least and best-loved was – liberty.” Is that not an incredibly evocative description of a person? That’s good stuff. If she was a man she’d be a mysterious hermit artist. But since she’s a woman – a woman who loves being alone, that incomprehensible creature – they make her out to be a tragedy. Like she was much more delicate than she was. Yeah, she had bad health – her whole family did, and that’s unfair. It sucks that they all died so young. But it’s never seemed to me that growing up the way they did warped them; rather I think it seemed to set them free. Free to seek out their own amusements and gratifications without a whole lot of societal hullabaloo getting in the way.

            It can be hard for people to understand someone who chooses to live a life primarily of the mind. When that person is a woman she becomes an alien. Maybe Emily Bronte spent a lot of time in a lonely place thinking of stories because she liked it that way and derived great satisfaction from it. We certainly have no evidence that she didn’t.

          • sheila says:

            I’d love a good movie about them too. Their childhood – those books they all wrote together – their fantasy worlds. Again, that seems to me to have been pathologized – and why? Little children in an isolated area creating games for themselves? Why does that seem “neurotic” in the Brontes? Maybe it is because they all died so young – and so everything is seemed tragic in the face of that.

            Juliet Barker’s massive biography did a lot to dispel some of the myths around the Bronte clan – that book is sometimes tedious – but the sheer amount of research she did is awe-inspiring. She was really going after the Bronte Myth – and to do that, she focused on things like – church records, and old agricultural reports, and land grants and I don’t know what else (I get really bogged down in the details of that book – and I think Barker did too) – to show that the Brontes lived in a much more social world than previously understood. That much of that “myth” had to do with a romanticization of the Brontes and their sad fates – a sort of “these lonely people living in the middle of nowhere” narrative – which also may be part of what we are talking about: the need to EXPLAIN why people would prefer solitude to company. (Especially women, as you point out). Social people just cannot understand and so create elaborate “neurotic” stories about those who just want to be by themselves. We still live in such a world – perhaps it’s an eternal human thing – since we are social animals.

            The portraits of Emily that exist – mostly from Charlotte – like that quote you referenced – are so fascinating!!! How I wish I could at least have been in her presence – at a church meeting, or a sewing circle – whatever – to just see what she must have been like in person.

            It’s an extraordinary thing: to have a book like Wuthering Heights be your only novel. Her solitude is IN that book, her connection to nature, her feeling of space and weather – plus fate and passion. It’s such a confident crazy book.

            In her poem “Often Rebuked” – basically a declaration of independence – comes one of my favorite lines – written by her, yes, but also in general. I’ll walk where my own nature would be leading:
            It vexes me to choose another guide

            I just love that so much. I also love that she uses the word “vexes” – which brings a level of discomfort to the whole thing. She’s bristled at being told to do this/do that – she’s VEXED. It’s an interesting and illuminating word, I think – very truthful. I’ve reminded myself of these lines in times when I feel outside the norm, or … doubting myself, feeling out of step with my peers, whatever.

            She was truly independent. I do wonder what would have happened if she lived. It seems apparent what would have happened had Charlotte lived. (Although, who knows. You never know.) Charlotte got married. Charlotte had written a couple of books. Charlotte would continue.

            But Emily? It’s a great mystery. I sure would love to see what she would have chosen to wrote next, that’s for sure.

  6. Todd Restler says:

    “Dear director, you need to understand that women do cool cool cool shit, and have been doing so for centuries”

    You are proof of that Sheila! I get you completely.

  7. Melissa Sutherland says:

    Love these LETTERS.

    About the photographs, for some reason, the empty beds and wallpaper are always what get to me.

  8. Bill Wolfe says:

    I was looking at the expression of the boy sitting on a chair alone in a room (it’s the photo below the one of the two ladies gossiping on the subway), when I suddenly realized there was a cardboard cut-out of a Santa Claus head propped on the table on the other side of the room. It seemed both an obscene joke, this gruesomely jolly salesman of Christmas cheer in the midst of such abject poverty, and, as evidence of hope despite all reasons to have none, an impenetrable mystery of the human spirit.

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