“I was damn well going to be an artist and I wasn’t going to be a businessman.”
Interview Excerpt from, Leslie Katz with Walker Evans, 1971.
Leslie Katz: You took photographs of whatever interested you?
Walker Evans: Oh yes. I was a passionate photographer, and for a while somewhat guiltily. I thought it was a substitute for something else – well, for writing, for one thing. I wanted to write. But I became very engaged with all things there were to be had out of a camera, and became compulsive about it. It was a real drive. Particularly when the lighting was right, you couldn’t keep me in. I was a little shame-faced about it, because most photography had about it a ludicrous, almost comic side, I thought. A “photographer” was a figure held in great disdain. Later I used that defiantly. But then, I suppose, I thought photographing was a minor thing to be doing. And I guess I thought I ought to be writing. In Paris, I had been trying to write. But in writing I felt blocked – mostly by high standards. Writing’s a very daring thing to do. I’d done a lot of reading, and I knew what writing was. But shy young men are seldom daring.
L.K.: Who were your favorite authors? Did they influence your photography?
W.E.: Flaubert, I suppose, mostly by method. And Baudelaire in spirit. Yes, they certainly did influence me, in every way.
L.K.: Well, your photographs are known for showing an indigenous American esthetic that doesn’t even know it is an esthetic – an archetypal classicism of the ordinary. It’s almost as if Flaubert had a camera.
W.E.: I wasn’t very conscious of it then, but I know that Flaubert’s esthetic is absolutely mine. Flaubert’s method I think I incorporated almost unconsciously, but anyway used in two ways: his realism and naturalism both, and his objectivity of treatment; the non-appearance of author, the non-subjectivity. That is literally applicable to the way I want to use a camera and do. But spiritually, however, it is Baudelaire who is the influence on me. Even though I haven’t really studied Baudelaire very much I consider him the father of modern literature, the whole modern movement, such as it is. Baudelaire influenced me and everybody else too. Now that I think about it, mine was the first generation that went to Europe and got a European perspective and technique and came back and applied it to America. Who could be more wonderful masters than Baudelaire and Flaubert? That had really been lacking. Of course everyone went to Europe differently. I don’t think Scott Fitzgerald got anything much out of Europe, but Hemingway did. For one thing, Fitzgerald didn’t pay any attention to the French language. Hemingway became sort of a master of languages; he could speak and think French and Italian and Spanish.
“Documentary? That’s a very sophisticated and misleading word. And not really clear. You have to have a sophisticated ear to receive that word. The term should be documentary style.”
L.K.: When you began to photograph, how were you affected by the cultural atmosphere and the photography you found in New York when you returned?
W.E.: I found myself operating direct from the French esthetic and psychological approach to the world. I applied that to the problem of rendering what I saw. I think I operated in reaction to mediocrity and phoniness. In the late twenties the battle against gentility in the arts and behavior was still on. Everybody a little bit advanced was busy misbehaving in order to shock gentility. Meneken was still leading the attack. William Dean Howells was gone. The attack was a branch of “epater le bourgeois.” A kind of esthetic and literary revolution was taking place. Anybody wandering in became a part of that. I did, I’m sure. It’s hard to believe now, but we had barnacles of Victorianism hanging around that wouldn’t scrape off. I was brought up with Victorian English standards of behavior. I thought that was something to hide. I was in rebellion against my parents’ standards. In round terms, I was damn well going to be an artist and I wasn’t going to be a businessman.
L.K. How did you make a living?
W.E.: I had a night job on Wall Street in order to be free in the daytime. It paid for room and food. You didn’t have to sleep or eat much. In those days I was rather ascetic; I didn’t lead the bohemian life Crane led. My friends were mostly Europeans. I shared an apartment with Paul Grotz and the German painter Hans Skolle. I was really anti-American at the time. America was a big business and I wanted to escape. It nauseated me. My photography was a semi-conscious reaction against right-thinking and optimism; it was an attack on the establishment. I could just hear my father saying, “Why do you want to look at those scenes, they’re depressing. Why don’t you look at the nice things in life?” Nothing original about that though. The Ashcan School of painting and Upton Sinclair and maybe Dreiser had already done it. Although I felt above having a “cause” like Sinclair. I disdained Sinclair Lewis, too, thinking he lacked taste and breadth and cultivation – though he was a very gifted Yankee word-slinger.
L.K.: When did you begin to take pictures that caught hold with you?
W.E.: About 1928 and 1929. I had a few prescient flashes and then led me on. I found I wanted to get a type in the street, a “snapshot” of a fellow on the waterfront, or a stenographer at lunch. That was a very good vein. I still mine that vein.
L.K.: You’re a collector; you collect postcards, and found objects. Is there any relation between your collecting and your work?
W.E.: A great deal. It’s almost the same thing. A collector becomes excessively conscious of a certain kind of object, falls in love with it, then pursues it. I notice that in my work for a certain time I’m interested in nothing but a certain kind of face or type of person. You start selecting people with the camera. It’s compulsive and you can hardly stop. I think all artists are collectors of images.
L.K.: There is an abstract about the most literal photograph of yours. Do you think in terms of composition?
W.E.: I don’t think very much about it consciously, but I’m very aware of it unconsciously, instinctively. Deliberately discard it every once in a while not to be artistic. Composition is a schoolteacher’s word. Any artist composes. I prefer to compose originally, naturally rather than self-consciously. Form and composition both are terribly important. I can’t stand a bad design or a bad object in a room. So much for form. That way it’s placed is composition… when you stop to think about what an artist is doing one question is, what is the driving force, the motive? In this country it is rather obvious; different, say, from European culture. The artist here is very angry and fighting. Everything makes him angry: the local style of living, and one’s competitors. Even coworkers in the arts anger and stimulate him. I was stimulated by Stieglitz. When I got around to looking at photography I found him somebody to work against. He was artistic and romantic. I gave me an esthetic to sharpen my own against – a counter-esthetic. But I respect Stieglitz for some things. He put up a very good fight for photography.
L.K.: In literature or painting, the artist creates in a prolongation of time. Photography is an instant. Your photographs show the monumentality of an instant. What role does accident and what role does intention play? How do they come together? Or is that too mysterious a question to discuss?
W.E.: In the act of photographing? It’s all done instinctively, as far as I can see, not consciously. But after having made it instinctively, unless I fell that the product is a transcendence of the thing, of the moment in reality, then I haven’t done anything, and I throw it away. Take Atget, whose work I now know very well. (I didn’t know it at all for awhile.) In his work you do feel what some people call poetry. I do call it that also, but a better word for it, to me, is, well – when Atget does even a tree root, he transcends that thing. And by God somebody else does not. There are millions of photographs made all the time, and they don’t transcend anything and they’re not anything. In this sense photography’s a very difficult art and probably depends on a gift, and unconscious gift sometimes, an extreme talent. Of course there are many extremely gifted and talented people who wouldn’t think of operating a camera, but whey they do, it shows. What’s great about Tolstoi? A paragraph of his describing a young Russian girl is universal and transcendent, while what another author writes on the same subject may amount to nothing much.
“The point is difficult and abstruse. And that’s why I say half jokingly that photography’s the most difficult of the arts. It does require a certain arrogance to see and choose.”
L.K. In other arts once can speak of technique of hand or of mind, the draftsmanship of the painter, the craft of the author. In photography there is a mechanical instrument and a moment with the eye, having looked through the lens, allows the hand to click a lever. How can all that we’ve expected of literature and art find a commensurate expression in a medium that is basically a mechanism?
W.E.: Well, that’s what makes photography so special and interesting and unknown as an art, and that’s why so many people don’t see anything at all. The point is difficult and abstruse. And that’s why I say half jokingly that photography’s the most difficult of the arts. It does require a certain arrogance to see and choose. I feel myself walking on a tightrope instead of on the ground. With the camera, it’s all or nothing. You either get what you’re after at once or what you do has to be worthless. I don’t think the essence of photography has the hand in it so much. The essence is done very quietly with a flash of the mind, and with a machine. I think too that photography is editing, editing after the taking. After knowing what to take you have to do the editing. The secret of photography is, the camera takes on the character and the personality of the handler. The mind works on the machine – through it, rather.
L.K.: Do you take many photographs to get one photograph?
W.E: Quite often. I’ll do anything to get one photograph. That’s another mater I would have to quarrel with a man like Stieglitz about. Stieglitz wouldn’t cut a quarter of an inch off a frame. I would cut any number of inches off my frames in order to get a better picture. Stieglitz once made a very revealing remark to me. He said, “I would have been one of the greatest painters ever born.” That gave me plenty of thought. I believe it revealed great insecurity on his part. And yet the same man, to his credit, stuck to pure photography and felt that the camera ought to be photographic and not painterly. He was a purist in that way. The real photographer who is an artist would never produce a romantic print now, as so many early nineteenth- and twentieth-century photographers did, using tricks of focus and retouching to disguise the photograph and push it in the direction of painterliness – which is ridiculous. Photography should have the courage to present itself as what it is, which is a graphic composition produced by a machine and an eye and then some chemicals and paper. Technically, it has nothing to do with painting.
L.K.: How important is the print and the variation in prints?
W.E.: Very important. The printing technique is hidden and should be. A print has to be true and efficient too, and it can – photographically. You have to have taste and know what’s right, about the rendition of light for example – not too little. Take one negative and print it several ways, and just one will be right. It’s a question of truth. You can make a very false picture from a wonderful negative, or you can make a true one.
L.K.: One notices that in your photographs people are unselfconscious before your camera and all the more themselves for that, formally unselfconscious. Also, in your photographs of things, you seem to seek and discover what you once termed “unconscious arrangements.” Do you efface yourself, or seek a quality of concentration?
W.E.: No, but I do it psychologically, and again, unconsciously. It comes about through some quality of mine that I don’t know how I bring into play. People react to me in one way, and to another kind of person in another way. They react the way I want them to when I’m doing it right. I’m often asked by students how a photographer can overcome self-consciousness in himself and in his subjects. I say any sensitive person is bothered unless his belief in what he is doing and motive is very strong. The picture is the important thing. In making pictures of people no harm is being done to anybody or deception practiced. One is carrying on a great tradition in a branch of art practiced by Daumier and Goya, for instance. Daumier’s Third Class Carriage is a kind of snapshot of actual people sitting in a railway carriage in France in mid-nineteenth century. Although he didn’t use a camera, he sketched those people on the spot, like a reporter, and they probably saw him doing it. What of it?
L.K. Then photographs can be documentary as well as works of art?
W.E.: Documentary? That’s a very sophisticated and misleading word. And not really clear. You have to have a sophisticated ear to receive that word. The term should be documentary style. An example of a literal document would be a police photograph of a murder scene. You see, a document has use, whereas art is really useless. Therefore art is never a document, though it certainly can adopt that style.
TO BE CONTINUED