“The Thing Itself is Such a Secret and so Unapproachable”
George Eastman House, Image Magazine, Vol. 17., No.4, December, 1974, Originally Published in Yale Alumni Magazine, February, 1974.
Walker Evans, the eminent American photographer, who taught photography at Yale until his retirement several years ago, talks informally with today’s students about his life, his art and the mysteries of the creative process…
W.E. – I guess I’m the only survivor of my age of the school of non-commercial and extremely self-virtuous young artists that I was when I was your age. We wouldn’t do anything we were asked to do, and we fought around it. Of course that kills most people. For some reason or other it didn’t kill me. And I feel that since I’ve progressed rather slowly, I still have a long career ahead of me.
Yale: Could you tell us something about the experience of working with James Agee on the book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men?
W.E.: Oh yes. That of course is the most conspicuous thing I’ve done, entirely due to Agee. I have a lot of false renown because I was working with a tremendous man, and I’m embarrassed just talking about it because Agee’s character doesn’t fit the apotheosis he’s gone through. He was a very humble man and also very opposed to all kinds of establishments, particularly including the academic, and to put his name in a circle like this— well, he didn’t like to be in that kind of an atmosphere. But I will say, he was a great friend of mine before we went off and worked in the South together, and he was distinctly the leader-instigator of that project and I don’t think we could have succeeded without his talent with people.
Incidentally, part of a photographer’s gift should be with people. You can do some wonderful work if you know how to make people understand what you’re doing and feel all right about it, and you can do terrible work if you put them on the defense, which they all are at the beginning. You’ve got to take them off their defensive attitude and make them participate. Agee was very good at that. He and I moved into some very remote but typical farming families in the Depression, at a time when everything just reeked of poverty. There wasn’t a cent of money around. And these people were in terrible shape, but typically, because everybody else was. And I suppose, without meaning to, that what I was doing was photographing human poverty. I just couldn’t help it. We were all in it. Everybody was desperate. I find that it’s very hard to describe what that was like.
Yale: Did it take long to overcome their nervousness?
W.E.: Not really, because Agee was very gifted in the field that I was just talking about—making people feel all right. In fact, they began to love Agee and to be awfully interested. He also took great care to let them know that this was not an invasion or a burden that would set them back in any way. At that time we didn’t know it was going to be a book —this was just for a magazine article—and he told them all about it and made them feel that they were participating. We made ourselves into paying guests, with their understanding, and they hadn’t seen any money for the longest time, and although that wasn’t a corrupt gesture it did make them feel a little bit ahead of the game. Since the game was zero right then.
Yale: How long was it before any of the work was actually published?
W.E.: It was quite some time, as a matter of fact. What was first done was a two-part article that was rejected by the magazine that had commissioned it, and Agee asked for a release of rights. He then got a small advance from a publisher and wrote the book, but it took three or four years. I believe we were there in 1936 and the book was published in ’41, so there was a long period and a whole lot of sub-adventures—the book was rejected by the first publisher and taken to a second. It’s a complicated and not very interesting story. But it’s typical of the history of any venture. If you’re going to start to do something you’re going to have setbacks bringing it to fruition. Any venture is a rocky road. Your education is, too.
Yale: You talk about yourself rebelling against the Establishment and about the misfortunes of Depression times, but your photographs are not critical. I find them more of a glorification—glorification of the plain and simple reality.
W.E.: I’m pleased to hear you say that, because I didn’t like the label that I unconsciously earned of being a social protest artist. I never took it upon myself to change the world. And those contemporaries of mine who were going around falling for the idea that they were going to bring down the United States government and make a new world were just asses to me. I knew by then that nobody was going to do that. And that kind of history has repeated itself. People in the late ’60s, not long ago, had those same ideas, and there hasn’t been a single dent in the forces that they were going to bring down.
Yale: But certain photographs really do have political content, starting with, for example, Hine’s photographs of children working in the mills at the turn of the century.
W.E.: Well, Hine can be used more than I can for that purpose—and there’s a good reason. Hine did intend to arouse political action, or at least arouse an interest in child labor. I cared to have certain things read into my work, but I really don’t intend to have my ideas and my work and my vision used as political action.
Since you raised the question of whether I’m a politically-minded artist or not, the answer is no, I’m not. I never undertake direct political action. Every time I’ve had a political idea it has proved perfectly wrong. For example, when I heard Mr. Nixon’s speech—you remember the famous one that he made with his little dog—I was just convinced, “Well, that’s the end of Richard Nixon.” The next morning the country hailed him as a white knight.
Yale: In your picture of the dock workers in Cuba, it was obviously a very hard existence. The faces are as black as coal dust, or whatever it is they were working with, and yet your pictures seem to show them almost as cheerful.
W.E.: Well, you must remember, I didn’t attempt to put that in. I want to record what’s there, and you’re right—those people have no self-pity and no sense of very much of anything. They were just as happy as you are, really. Are you happy? Maybe you’re having a worse time than they were.
Do you think in photographing, say, suburban America — which is a very wide part of American life today — you could use the same approach, of just looking at the very surface to portray it?
W.E.: It doesn’t work. I’ve tried. I thought, “Here’s a great, significant sector of America,” but I’ve been bored looking at the work of those who have done it and I’ve been bored with my own work.
Yale: But have you seen any good ideas in photographing suburban America?
W.E.: The movie called The Graduate was satirical and quite true, quite penetrating, but that’s not still photography. And there’s a long tradition of it in writing, identified by Sinclair Lewis. His characters like Babbitt are relentless pictures of middle-class American life. But I can’t imagine myself photographing a group of people sitting around a country club, or whatever they call it. I’ve never found them satirical enough material.
Yale: Some people have said that you knew more about America in the ’30s than anybody else. How did you learn? You understood America.
W.E.: Well, yes, but only instinctively. That and many other questions come to me now as unanswerable and inexplicable. I knew a whole lot of things— I can see now in retrospect—instinctively and unconsciously, and that goes along with a theory of mine: that almost all good artists are being worked through with forces that they’re not quite aware of. They are transmitters of sensitivities that they’re not aware of having, of forces that are in the air at the time. I’ve done a lot of things that I’m surprised at now which show a lot of knowledge that I didn’t have or knew I had. I can now learn something from my own pictures.
Yale: Was it hard to find America at that time after going to Andover?
W.E.: Well, that’s a large and subtle question, and that’s also something I don’t know much about, but I’ve thought about it. Yes, I’m a product of a very Establishment place like Andover, for example, but I was always rather against it, even at the time. I didn’t want to admit that I was in such a classical establishment, and I used to go around pretending that I wasn’t, or that I was uneducated, and that was a youthful force. It was false thinking, but I’ve got my balance about that now.
Privilege, if you’re very strict, is an immoral and unjust thing to have, but if you’ve got it you didn’t choose to get it and you might as well use it. You’re privileged to be at Yale, but you know you’re under an obligation to repay what’s been put into you.
Actually, in my generation only a very few people people were anti-establishment or were revolutionary or were artists. But now there’s a great change, one of the most remarkable revolutions in thought and style that we have ever seen. For one thing, young people today have a place to go if they want to run away. We didn’t have any place to go. The Communist Party let us down by the Stalin Pact and by the Moscow trials. The whole world offered us no escape from our condition and our past and authority. We couldn’t get out of it. But if you look at a phenomenon like Woodstock you realize that there’s a mass of people all in the same boat, who take care of each other. We had no strength in union. There wasn’t any union.
Yale: Do you think that this change in consciousness has resulted in an increase in good photography?
W.E.: That’s a complicated question. I have a theory that the extensive interest in non-commercial photography that can be taken seriously now is due to the association between your minds and your idealistic yearning for honesty. And you have assumed that photography is an artistic medium and that it is more adaptable to honest work than words and drawings and paintings. I believe that’s responsible for the enormous interest in noncommercial photography, though I’m not sure you’re right about thinking that this is an honest medium or one that opens up possibilities of honest expression.
Yale: It seems to me that you are an early pioneer of this very movement you’ve been describing. One reason for your appeal is that you have always been a photographer of extraordinary honesty and simplicity—that what you’ve been looking for in America is something unadorned and plain and true.
W.E.: You must remember that this is an unconscious phenomenon, and it is to me an amazing accident of art history and psychological history and American history that I was unconsciously working in terms that surfaced, so to speak, in your generation. You talk about simplicity. When I first made photographs, they were too plain to be considered art and I wasn’t considered an artist. I didn’t get any attention at all. The people who looked at my work thought, well, that’s just a snapshot of the backyard. Privately I knew otherwise and through stubbornness stayed with it. I think I knew what I was doing but I didn’t know that I was bringing into play these characteristics you’re talking about. You talk about honesty. I didn’t know I was honest—I was just doing that instinctively. It just so happens that in a university the habit of mind is reflective and analytical, but that’s exceptional. The so-called man in the street, if he exists, is neither reflective nor analytical.
Yale: When you take pictures some kind of change occurs. There’s something different between your photographs and if you went to that place and looked at it with the naked eye, and I was wondering — you must have reflected on this, just having taken all those photographs — what effect your mind has when you make the conscious decision to push the button.
W.E.: Indeed I have. I think it’s fascinating, but it’s insoluble also. But I’d venture, if I could do it in a humble way, to claim to be an artist, and the motivation of artists is a great mystery. Who knows why a paragraph by Tolstoy is an inspired and often an almost deathless thing. It’s a piece of literature and high art, and a New York Times editorial never is. It couldn’t be. Yet they’re both uses of language.
Do you think it’s possible for the camera to lie?
W.E.: It certainly is. It almost always does.
Yale: Is it all right for the camera to lie?
W.E.: No, I don’t think it’s all right for any thing or any body to lie. But it’s beyond control. I just feel that honesty exists relatively in people here and there.
I guess what I’m trying to ask is, if you take a beautiful photograph of a garbage can, is it lying?
W.E. – Well, somebody wrote a whole essay called “There’s No Such Thing as Beauty.” And that’s worth thinking about. A garbage can, occasionally, to me at least, can be beautiful. That’s because you’re seeing. Some people are able to see that—see it and feel it. I lean toward the enchantment, the visual power, of the esthetically rejected subject.
Yale: Is that simply because they present a challenge to you?
W.E.: No, I’m just made that way. It’s partly rather perverse. I got a lot of my early momentum from disdain of accepted ideas of beauty, and that’s partly good, it’s partly original. It’s also partly destructive. I wasn’t a very nice young man. I was tearing down everything if possible. I only see that in retrospect. It was just in me, as there are certain curious things in you that you’ll wonder at, later on when you’re my age, but you won’t ever get to the bottom of.
Yale: To get back to the difference between non-commercial photography and journalism, if a picture is honest I don’t see what difference it makes if it’s hung in a gallery or printed on a page.
W.E.: I don’t either. In fact, I’m rather suspicious of hanging a picture in a gallery. I cut out remarkable pictures from the daily press all the time.
Yale: Have you ever tried color film and do you think it renders a less honest image than black and white?
W.E.: No, I’ve tried it. I’m in a stage right now that has to do with color and I’m interested in it. But I don’t think that the doors open to falsehood through color are any greater than they are through the manipulation of prints in black and white. You can distort that, too. I happen to be a gray man; I’m not a black-and-white man. I think gray is truer. You find that in other fields. E. M. Forster’s prose is gray and it’s marvelous.
Yale: Most of the people who have been doing color seem to be drawn to the dramatic, like Ernst Haas.
W.E.: I understand all that, but I’ve now taken up that little SX-70 camera for fun and become very interested in it. I’m feeling wildly with it. But a year ago I would have said that color is vulgar and should never be tried under any circumstances. It’s a paradox that I’m now associated with it and in fact I intend to come out with it seriously.
Yale: At the beginning you said that you were a late starter and you felt that your career still had a long way to go. What are you doing now?
W.E.: Well, I just told you one thing. I’m very excited about that little gadget which I thought was just a toy at first.
Yale: What are you trying to do with it?
W.E.: Oh, extend my vision and let that open up new stylistic paths that I haven’t been down yet. That’s one of the peculiar things about it that I unexpectedly discovered. A practiced photographer has an entirely new extension in that camera. You photograph things that you wouldn’t think of photographing before. I don’t even yet know why, but I find that I’m quite rejuvenated by it.
Yale: What do you think of the modern emphasis on technology?
W.E.: Well, I don’t think much of it and so I’m very confused about that new camera. I took it to England last summer and a friend of mine who is an art critic said, “But it’s a precept that hard work and mastering a difficult technique is a necessary part of artistic achievement, and therefore this thing is immoral.” True, with that little camera your work is done the instant you push that button.
But you must think what goes into that. You have to have a lot of experience and training and discipline behind you, although I now want to put one of those things in the hands of a chimpanzee and a child and see what happens. Well, not the chimpanzee — that’s been done before. But I want to try that camera with children and see what they do with it. It’s the first time, I think, that you can put a machine in an artist’s hands and have him then rely entirely on his vision and his taste and his mind.
Yale: Maybe that’s one of the worst things about the SX-70 — that there is no technical hurdle. Just anyone can take shots.
W.E.: Well, that isn’t the worst thing. That’s always been true with anything, whether there’s any technical need or not. For example, we’re all taught to write, and anybody can sit down and write something. Not everybody can sit down and write something that’s worth writing.
Yale: It seems that a lot of new pictures are just interested in displaying what’s in the picture without much emotional feeling about it. Alfred Stieglitz said what he was most interested in was an intensity of feeling that he got from the object itself.
W.E.: I think in his case he was led into too much introspection about artistic matters. The more he thought about that, the less of an artist he became. When he began to think that he was photographing God, he was photographing nothing. But he did some wonderful work, say, around 1906 in the Paris streets. The reality of those streets—he caught it. He was a master technician, and those are very endearing works. But those pictures of clouds are nothing to me, absolutely nothing. And he thought they were the greatest things he ever did.
Yale: What do you tell your students?
W.E.: First of all, I tell them that art can’t be taught, but that it can be stimulated and a few barriers can be kicked down by a talented teacher, and an atmosphere can be created which is an opening into artistic action. But the thing itself is such a secret and so unapproachable. And you can’t put talent into anybody. I think you ought to say so right away and then try to do something else. And that’s what a university is for, what it should be — a place for stimulation and an exchange of ideas and a chance to give people the privilege of beginning to take some of the richness of general life that’s in everybody and has to be unlocked.
ASX CHANNEL: Walker Evans
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