Thursday, August 26, 2010

`Those Men Are Unconscious Photographers'

Between 1938 and 1941, Walker Evans surreptitiously photographed hundreds of passengers on New York City subways. He strapped to his chest a 35-mm Contax with the chrome painted black and aimed it between two buttons of his topcoat. He worked the shutter with a long cord running down the sleeve to his right hand. Mostly he shot the people seated across the aisle from him. The resulting photographs are a voyeur’s dream, public but candid. Evans turns into art what all of us do privately every day – watch (and evaluate) our fellow humans, whether in a spirit of lust, comedy or idle curiosity.

Many Are Called, not published until 1966, collects eighty-nine of Evans’ candid photos. Go here to see an image of the 2004 reissue, the cover of which pictures a man reading the Feb. 15, 1938, issue of the New York Daily News: “Pal Tells How Gungirl Killed.” In Walker Evans, his 1999 biography of the photographer, James R. Mellow cites a passage from “The Tunnel” section of The Bridge in which Hart Crane (an Evans acquaintance) sees the spirit of Edgar Allan Poe on the subway:

“And why do I often meet your visage here,
Your eyes like agate lanterns – on and on
Below the toothpaste and the dandruff ads?”

Like Crane, Evans noticed advertizing and signs of any sort. The epigraph Evans gave to the 1966 edition of Many Are Called was first attributed to Henry James, but corrected to the novelist’s father, Henry James Sr., on an erratum slip: “To a right-minded man, a crowded Cambridge horsecar is the nearest approach to heaven upon earth.” The line might be Whitman’s (“The heavy omnibus, the driver with his interrogating thumb…"). Mellow says the choice of epigraph reveals Evans’ “sly perversity,” and continues:

“…Evans had a deep respect for Henry James, Jr., as well as for James Joyce, and felt a connection between a `great piece of writing and photography.’ Evans maintained: `There’s no book but what’s full of photography. James Joyce is. Henry James is. That’s a pet subject of mine – how those men are unconscious photographers.’”

Walker Evans was no dutiful documentarian. Like any artist, like James and Joyce, his deepest concerns were formal, but his work, like theirs, is suffused with the human. This is no contradiction. Form and content are inextricable. Consider James’ greatest story, “The Beast in the Jungle,” from 1903. In the cemetery, beside the grave of May Bartram, whose love he never recognized or returned, John Marcher finally perceives “the sounded void of his life.” He observes another mourner whose grief is apparent:

“Marcher knew him at once for one of the deeply stricken--a perception so sharp that nothing else in the picture comparatively lived, neither his dress, his age, nor his presumable character and class; nothing lived but the deep ravage of the features that he showed. He showed them--that was the point; he was moved, as he passed, by some impulse that was either a signal for sympathy or, more possibly, a challenge to an opposed sorrow.”

This reads like a photograph – not a naturalistic transcript of reality but an artist’s carefully selective rendering, like one of the faces Evans shot in the subway. The linking of James and photography, form and content, remind me of Herbert Morris’ poem about the novelist, “House of Words” (What Was Lost, 2000), a 657-line dramatic monologue set in 1906. James examines proofs of his portrait taken by Alvin Langdon Coburn, the American photographer whose atmospheric pictures illustrate the New York Edition. James’ mood ten years before his death is sadly resigned, autumnal, almost self-pitying, though he continues to write. The novelist recalls his meeting with Coburn and says he:

“…spoke of the vagaries of photographic
portraiture, as he sees them, and to which
the gentleman has not, to hear him tell it,
accustomed himself, wholly made his peace with,
followed by the man’s pained, detailed recital
(admirably restrained, almost reluctant),
albeit cogent, moving, of dilemmas
in willing mere mechanical devices,
lens, timer, shutter, dimmest `apparatus’
(quiescent, mindless until now, awaiting
someone—oneself—to rouse them into life),
to reproduce, as best they can, that vision
one possesses as much as is possessed by—
one’s version of the world, one thinks to call it--,
the problem, too, with words, if I may say so,
dilemmas, in all truth, with which I am not,
nor ever have been, a fine point made finer,


William A. Sigler said...
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William A. Sigler said...

No shortage of caffeine in this post! I love the addendum of Morris and his “sly perversity” – tracking the madness of James’ mind as it gropes for equilibrium in judgment. The passage is almost Joycean in its relentless interiority. “That vision one possesses as much as is possessed by” (speaking of Poe’s “agate lantern” eyes in the subway, a daily observance for me) is what leads to this madness, not knowing where discernment, what writer and photographer alike practice, veers into inscription, that awful power of a writer to define from the loose ends of his own psyche the secrets only hinted at in appearances. Morris’ James fumbles with the words as if he could, as the photographer does, blame the apparatus. “A fine point made finer” becomes his quixotic epitaph, the way he resists reaching the point where what is seen becomes self-discovery. Morris’ heart is large enough to embrace the nobility of the ambition and the myopia of the realization alike.