When I have to reflecting about some of the great photographers of the history, I feel a sort a mix of vertigo and Socratic ignorance. Firstly, the work of these photographers is so huge that considering the entire set requires a historicist approach, and taking into account the influences that the photographer received in his/her artistic development.
On the other hand, research in the catalogue of photographers as Evans, Adams or Frank causes a certain frustration when you know that already not going to enjoy again the exciting feeling that causes the first encounter whit their work.
Today I would like to comment some basic aspects of one of these fundamental photographers, the American Walker Evans (1903-1975). I find interesting to note that his early artistic interests pointed to literature, to which he devoted himself in his early years as a student in Paris. After an existential crisis as a writer, he perhaps devoted his efforts to photography. This interest in literature may be manifested in his photographs by the inclusion of written text on the scene. The most notable example of this is the famous picture of those men unloading from a truck an enormous sign that says, “DAMAGED”
In his first photographs, we appreciate influences of modernist photographers as Moholy-Nagy and Rodchenko noticeable in the use extreme perspective, although he soon abandoned that aesthetic movement.
His first assignments have a patent documentary character and put him in contact with the essence of America, which will mark his style and artistic trajectory that will later develop in his best-known books: “American photographs” and “Let us now praise famous men”. The latter, accompanied with an essay written by James Agee that shares prominence with the photos.
Some of the photos of these books come from his collaboration with the FSA project, where he met Dorothea Lange, Rothstein and Delano, quickly emerging from all of them and established as a sort of spiritual leader of the group. From this time on, his frontal portraits of people from rural and impoverished America draw directly, with no intention of dissimulation, the stark reality of America that suffered the most painful consequences of the crisis.
His rebellious character provoked that Ray Stryker will take advantage of the occasion to dismiss him in the first budgetary cut of the project. Nevertheless, Evans reserved his best photographs for himself that later included them in the books mentioned above.
In this line of portraying the authentic face of America, Evans noticed that not only the rural environment suffered annihilation, but also in the big cities people endured an alienating living conditions. This somber tone is reflected in his photographs taken in the suburban wagons of New York City. With a small camera of 35mm hide under his coat and a shutter cable, he took this series of portraits of the commuters. The framing of many of these images is imperfect, But the whole series is a proposal that draws an intriguing fresco from American urban society.
There is an immense distance separating the subject from the photographer. The fact that the subject does not know that he is being photographed further accentuates this gap. By definition, the portrait establishes a kind of consent relationship between the subject and the photographer, where the camera acts as a mediator. The subject surrenders his intangible image to the photographer who by the magic of the light and the chemistry will be preserved eternally in the support of the paper. In these photographs of Evans there is no such a tacit relationship between the subject and the photographer. Here the image is stolen without the consent of the subject.
The photographer stands as a sort of omnipresent divinity that observes impassible the becoming of human beings who parade ignorant of his power in front of his camera. As in the myth of the cavern, the shadows of the figures projected in the chamber are now shown to us to give us an idea of how the real America is, because the only we knew about it was through the images projected on the cinema screen.