WALKER EVANS: “Message from the Interior”

The ASX Team

January 18, 2013

walker evans message from the interior

Ghost is Guest

By Anna Solal, Translated from French by Chris Farmer and Florian Aimard

The book’s title – Message from the interior – is both open and reserved, preparing the reader not only for its subject matter, but also for the atmosphere of intensity it contains. Here, through objects and places, the photographer speaks to us of absence, the difficulty of communication and the passage of time. Starting with the book’s physical incarnation, one first notices the tender care taken in separating each print with a fine sheet of tracing paper, and that the intense black finish appears to be lightly coated with a metallic sheen. The project’s overall tone meanders through a strange union of the human voice’s warmth and the night’s bitter chill.

Walker Evans picks out details that unsettle our delicate balance with portraits set in living rooms, kitchens or bedrooms…. hidden beneath the mantle of a banal almost anthropological archive that nears an academic form. Each photograph functions as a work of art or poem, with its own visual grammar where the simplicity of the form is only equalled by the complexity of its echoing and persistent background. The selection is imbued with a certain discipline, even if all of the photographs enter into a perfect relationship of dialogue, they can also be perceived individually as isolated works. They exist by way of their strata; the more you scratch at the surface the more you notice hidden alcoves, new doorways, tunnel systems. The project has developed through its depiction of differing gestures and temporal layers. Yet the photographer forces us to slow our regard, inciting our eyes to wander across the image in a manner that is as gentle as it is nervous.

On first impression, the meticulous layout of the image leaves room for the disciplined and temporarily deserted places that they depict. “Upstairs Room”, the first of the photos, greets us with an immense doorway; its height takes up almost the whole of the image, with all the authority of a temple entrance. In “The Parlour Chair”, we see the living room of a middle- class apartment; it is easy to tell which of the settees we see is the husband’s and which is that of the wife. Crushed by the weight of conformity, the fragile décor is not so much defined by the couple’s will but that of society as a whole. Everything is in its place, with careful respect to hierarchy, even the furniture as it is almost comically condemned ad vitam aeternam to its decorative function, stripped of any role other than its pathetic place in the stage design.

In “The Church Organ”, we can make out the words “Security Report” and “Point Record System Credit” nailed to the wall. Further on, in another image, Evans also captures “Station Ticket” and “Notice”. These bureaucratic and regulatory signs outline deathly windows that open up views over the world. They appear like rationalisations of the landscape, there to standardise actions, occupy the view and blind the spirit. Their obscure curtains filter reality, letting through only precepts and laws. The terse allure of these formalities solidifies all thoughts and restricts horizons.

The artist thus provides us with an inventory of documents that can be seen as castrating those who would freely compose on the piano or travel without any fixed destination. In life all is not a cage yet bars appear here as a constant motif; in the back of a chair, a bed frame or a shadow.

walker evans message from the interior

walker evans message from the interior

None the less there is resistance, in spite of all of these codes and the apparent passivity of these empty, predetermined spaces. Life is indeed present, in the smell of the wallpaper, the sound of the wooden floors, the slight movements of dust particles and the lengthening of shadows. The artist weaves something together by breaking up the scenes that are laid out within this fleeting and uncontrollable present moment. There is struggle within these images. If the “Ticket” counter has an appearance of excessive austerity and purely administrative value its form also takes on that of a confessional booth, one can immediately imagine the secrets that may still remain within. A charter of protocols is carefully hung on the wall in that same image. To the far right however, only just within the frame, a curled up page is carelessly hung, finding itself with the role of providing the only curved line in the image, breaking up the image’s pervading perpendicular and parallel lines. Like the last flourish of a clumsy, nervous and agitated paintbrush, there to short-circuit the system. And so we find at least some tiny details that restore the human element – an unmade bed, forgotten handwritten letters…. and other stigmata of misbehaving and disobedient human bodies. Inevitably the soul invades these spaces and explodes their perspectives.

In the photograph “East 120th Street” the artist first shows us a kitchen, from there our regard moves towards the living room and finally to the fading daylight filtering through the curtains. Yet the black, frozen and impenetrable night seems to have already invited itself into the depths of the room, even before nightfall is expected. It heads towards the kitchen as if it wants to occupy the whole space and to envelope us all. This obscurity pervades everything, including the body and soul of the figure in the foreground, who appears to have lost their self to the night. Throughout this series we find fascinations for atmospheric temperatures and material textures, lines and mass are fitted together with the balance of an abstract painting or a delicate landscape. “Mary Frank’s Bed” references cubist composition. “Scarborough” is almost a collage work, breaking up all possible spatial and temporal reference points. A lamp like a sun, a bed like a sand-dune, plants like tapestries: an ideal medium for meditation and the imagination.

Evans’ interiors function like landscapes that open up towards other worlds, largely through the particular attention that he pays to the inanimate objects that are present, almost representing them as characters themselves. These every day and anonymous focal elements often provoke a kind of unease in the onlooker. These spaces, once emptied of their occupants, rediscover their own life, perspectives stretch out or become flattened; shadows recompose themselves into sculptures, as the objects take over the roles of the missing occupants and complete the story. We are their guests.

Chairs are present throughout Evans’ work. At times they appear uncomfortable. In the first photo, the large door is open, but to one side there is also a chair and a small desk whose excessive size and simplicity make it appear to have been designed for some giant being upon whose shoulders the weight of the world lies, completely out of proportion with the ceiling and the mirror, yet not spectacularly enough for it to be obvious. Like there has been a slight shift in the setting. Motionless before one’s desk, inside us everything still continues to move, a desk is the perfect place for the exorcism of memory and feeling. We can be immersed in reflection or dreams and it is these same objects, artefacts of everyday life, that influence our journeys without sterility or excessive drama. The table slowly and delicately transforms into a flying carpet…

If these objects occupy such a large place in Evans’ photography it is because they cannot be disassociated from bodies, which themselves only appear on two occasions in this work. In spite of these consistently deserted landscapes we can still feel their presence. It is through the object’s remoteness that voices, smells and the physicality of the body comes to us, almost as if they could not be separated from them by any other means.

Returning to our luxurious apartment: two small cats stretch themselves, pathetically lost in the middle of the floor, they are stiff or maybe become statues after being smothered by their surroundings, there is room for interpretation. In “The Farmer of Somerstown Road”, the photographer provides us with a visual display of pots on a table, just below a shelf. One of them splits the display in two, on one side the face of a man, on the other a cruelly banal box. What is curious is that the form of the latter is exactly halfway between two others. First of all this pot seems at once noble enough to be an urn whilst being also sufficiently temporary to serve as a wine pitcher. But then its rounded overall form brings to mind a skull. Its pale and damaged texture could just as easily be associated with skin or bone. Obviously neither head nor urn, the object stands between the other pots like a disowned abortion, but at the same time it serves as a unifying force, entwining the other objects permanently in their common fate. In another photograph, just as captivating, we see a woman folded in on herself, screwed to her chair, as if she is connected directly to the house’s electrical wiring. Her arm is stretched towards the edge of the frame, channelling all of the ambient electricity in the space to concentrate it all at the top of her skull, or more likely her ‘chignon’, a ball of nerves which is itself connected to a wire stretched lazily along the walls, lighting the bare bulb in the kitchen, a lone star in the depth of the night.

If there is a part of the body that recurs like an obsessive refrain throughout all of these stories, it is clearly the large eye that watches over us. As bulging and fat as a clock, as refined and piercing as even a simple hole in the wall. Objects and spaces become flesh, making up an intimate territory beneath a cover of anonymity, yet they also feed the subject of existence itself, their capacity to confront the passing of time, to make their own pathway between bitterness and light.

Evans’ acute vision evokes as much the history of art, through paintings that appear here and there on the walls, as the practicality of daily routines, as he struggles to understand the abandonment of objects; often through subtle details, the progressive deforming of certain materials that the talons of time itself wear away. The sheets become ruffled with a certain brevity and musicality, whilst the white hot floor of the fireplace cools. Then suddenly, with a photograph and that same energy, it seems that he wants to make connections between the whole of existence, with a modesty that excludes cowardice.

The choice of the silhouette of a rocking chair as a recurring motif right from the first photograph is no surprise. It gently welcomes the ageing body that aspires to serenity, yet its slow rocking motion also appears to evoke the baby’s cot. However in the foreground there is a chair and a table which, in spite of their crushing proportions, have a formal and even archaic simplicity, like that of a child’s desk. In “The Church Organ”, school benches sit next to a kind of organ, looking more like a funeral ceremony at a church than a jazz club. The “Kingston Station” ticket counter could easily be a representation of purgatory. The compositions often take on a checker-board pattern. The marriage of forms and colours orchestrate a baroque dance. Obscurity comes and occupies the light, and in the light obscurity sheds its skin.

To finish, I can say that the photographer questions the very possibility of feeling at home with oneself. Even when bitter and uncomfortable, like a territory to be invaded, one is certain to gather riches and witness the density of an accomplished work and, in passing, allow oneself to be absorbed by the generosity of an all-encompassing gift.

Anna Solal  (www.annasolal.com)

Message From the Interior. 

Photographs by Walker Evans. Afterword by John Szarkowski.
Eakins Press, 1966.   Cat# MW049   

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Walker Evans (November 3, 1903 – April 10, 1975) was an American photographer best known for his work for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) documenting the effects of the Great Depression.


(All rights reserved. Text @ Anna Solal)

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