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The Depression Era photographs of Walker Evans (1903-1975) remain some of the most indelible and iconic images in the American consciousness. James R. Mellow's landmark biography of Evans-the first to make use of all his diaries, letters, work logs, and contact sheets-shows that Evans was not the social propagandist that many presume, but rather a fastidious observer, recording, simply, the way things were. Walker Evans is not only one of the most finely wrought portraits of a major American artist ever, it is ...
The Depression Era photographs of Walker Evans (1903-1975) remain some of the most indelible and iconic images in the American consciousness. James R. Mellow's landmark biography of Evans-the first to make use of all his diaries, letters, work logs, and contact sheets-shows that Evans was not the social propagandist that many presume, but rather a fastidious observer, recording, simply, the way things were. Walker Evans is not only one of the most finely wrought portraits of a major American artist ever, it is also a fascinating cultural history of America in the 1930s and '40s.
Walker Evans III, as he sometimes jauntily referred to himself, was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on November 3, 1903. His father Walker Evans, Jr., an advertising man, had married the lively Jessie Beach Crane in St. Louis on January 15, 1900. The Evans family, according to an unidentified three-page typed genealogical tree in the Walker Evans archive, traced the family roots back to a John Laurence, born in Wisset, England, early in the seventeenth century, who later settled in Watertown, Massachusetts. The Laurence family line married into a succession of venerable New England families: Tarbells and Shedds and Haddens and Fullers. A Levi Laurence, born in Thetford, Vermont, on August 14, 1759, served for three years in the Revolutionary War and later became a deacon and lay preacher of the Baptist Church in Thetford. It was Levi's daughter, Mary Anne, born August 17, 1809, in Thetford, who married (in 1833 in St. Louis, Missouri) an Augustus Heaslip Evans, of an uncertain birth date, born in Woodstock, Virginia.
There the family line becomes a bit confused in the unknown genealogist's research. The first Walker Evans, the photographer's grandfather, born May 29, 1844, in St. Louis, marries an Amanda Brooks, originally of Mexico, Missouri, on December 4, 1844, and December 4, 1877, in St. Louis. That their son Walker Evans, Jr., is listed as having been born on January 29, 1876, in Mexico, Missouri, a year or so before their marriage compounds the problem. Another complication is the notation that the photographer's sister, Jane Beach Evans (bornJanuary 5, 1902), attended the couple's fiftieth wedding anniversary in 1937 rather than 1927. And the notation for Walker Evans III incorrectly gives his birthdate as March 3, 1903, rather than November 3. There is also a pointed notation: "has no children."
Perhaps it matters little in the life of the photographer, except that his mother, Jessie Beach Crane Evans, set some store on family connections. Judging from early family photographs of the Evanses and Cranes, it was a convivial family of aunts and uncles, nephews and nieces, of family visits and outings. A wedding photo of Walker's mother shows her, dainty slipper peeking forth from her lacy wedding gown and her head tilted to one side, with a coy beguiling smile. A photograph of Walker Evans's father taken the same year, 1900, shows him as dapper in a neatly tailored suit and vest, with pince-nez and smoothly parted hair. Another shows the father playing a guitar with a broad grin, while Jessie, leaning back on a slipcovered divan at what might be the Evans's family homestead, Fern Valley, near St. Louis, is looking thoroughly appreciative. There is, too, a picture of the young marrieds on a sailing expedition with family or friends, a perfect expression of turn-of-the-century life and pleasure, with Jessie staring knowingly at the photographer while her husband, seated on the deck, leans against her knees.
It was in the nature of Walker Evans Jr.'s profession that the family moved a good deal and that the children's education was a chequered affair. Walker and his sister, Jane, attended a kindergarten in Kenilworth, Illinois, a well-to-do suburb of Chicago. From grade school, when he was about eight, he would recall, somewhat vaguely, a pair of teachers—sisters who "were very sympathetic and good women. They were wonderful."
He claimed that he had been an apt pupil "until I discovered the choice of being bad and not doing well. But I was naïve. Maybe at the age of eight I was a star pupil, because I loved it. And I loved the teacher. But when I lost interest I became a very poor student," he admitted.
His defection must have occurred later at about the age of twelve or thirteen, when he was in the seventh grade of the Fuller School in Toledo, Ohio. Walker's father had been given the account for Willys Overland, the automobile manufacturer: "That was a big thing. That was why he had to move there. He couldn't turn it down." There is a postcard view of his classmates: the boys of the "class of room 15," posed in shirts and ties and cardigan sweaters or more fashionable Norfolk jackets, a collection of prominent ears and professional smiles, betokening the seriousness of the occasion. It was in Toledo, apparently around the age of fourteen, "like every other child," that Evans first became interested in photography: "I did have a box camera, and I developed film in the bathroom." He was at that age, he said, "visual ... But I was both graphic and visual in school as well as literary, and I was always drawing. For example, in school we were supposed to draw some maps. I couldn't stop drawing maps, and I made fine maps. I just went on and on and on." He had painted, too, in childhood: "I'm a natural painter." But it was not all a matter of ease and facility: "I also went through a period of insecurity, shyness, and depression about it." When you were a child and then again when you were a young man, you looked at other people's paintings and realized that you couldn't do what they had done. "I had to get over that." In Toledo, Evans recalled, he attended high school for only a year or two. He was pulled out to attend a boys school, Loomis, in Windsor, Connecticut.
But in Evans's scattered recollections he would recall that around 1919 or 1920, when he was sixteen or seventeen, he had attended the Mercersburg Academy in Pennsylvania. Fifteen years later, in 1935, on a photographic assignment traveling through Pennsylvania and West Virginia, he made a special trip, first to a hotel in Bedford Springs, Pennsylvania, where he and his "Happy Evans family" had stayed. He had become aware of the distance he had traveled in time from the young boy in white flannel long pants who, at fourteen or fifteen, had strolled along the causeway to the source of the springs. In 1935, for the first time, he had been struck by the architecture of the hotel and sardonically noted his failure to have noticed it when a boy: "Observant boy remembers classic portico and swimming pool but not rooms slept in, not a trace of memory of this, or of food eaten or dining room or arrival." Given his adult interest in vernacular architecture, he noted that he had "completely overlooked the gingerbread wings of the hotel" when he and his family had visited there.
The following morning, leaving the hotel late in the morning, he continued his sentimental journey: "Visited Mercersburg Academy—deserted, touched by a mild rush of reminiscences that was I think me in 1919 or 1920. Discovered that some things did happen to me there and that I am at least partly the same person I was fifteen years ago. I liked something there more than I knew at the time. Discovered by comparison that space shrinks with advancing time, or seems to." There were reasons, it appears, for fixing the present in its irrevocable time: It would become a principle of his photography.
Evans's education continued in the same spotty fashion. When his mother and father separated, Evans moved with his mother to New York City and from there, he was sent to Phillips Andover in Andover, Massachusetts, a prep school for well-to-do young boys. His performance those two years at Phillips Andover was hardly spectacular. Nevertheless, he was admitted to Williams College in Williamstown in September 1922. Despite the poor showing of his Andover records, Evans would claim, "I started reading at Andover with a real love of reading and then I carried it on so much at Williams that I didn't do much else but read in the library." Judging from his grades at Williams College, it may well have been true. Evans's recollection, supported by his records, was that he had dropped out of Williams after only one year. It was the end of his education, he claimed, "although I left in good standing. I don't remember studying anything. Paid a little attention in class." Evans's education did mark the beginning of a lifelong interest in literature, for, as he claimed, his first ambition in life, in fact, was to be a writer.
Posted March 28, 2009
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