"The Transparent Eyeball": On Emerson and Walker Evans

Article excerpt

Taking Emerson's "Nature" as its starting point, this paper argues that in Lincoln Kirstein's and William Carlos Williams's readings of Evans as a visionary artist of the vernacular, Emersonian ideals were always part and parcel of the search for an intrinsically American manifesto of photography.

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Standing on the bare ground,--my head bathed by the blithe air and
uplifted into infinite space,--all mean egotism vanishes. I become a
transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the
Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God.
--Emerson, "Nature"

This investigation takes as its starting point two distinct pieces of critical writing that emanated in response to Walker Evans's rise to fame in the 1930s: Lincoln Kirstein's "Photographs of America: Walker Evans" and William Carlos Williams's "Sermon with a Camera." Responding in particular to the publication of American Photographs, the catalogue for the 1938 Evans exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, these writings not only reflected but partially embraced Emersonian idealism as a way to codify the aesthetic qualities of Evans's camera. In the process, this essay argues, they constructed a vision of American documentary photography as a native and transcendental art.

In writing on American Photographs, Kirstein and Williams used an Emersonian rhetoric to connect the everyday, the vernacular, with a spiritualized and transcendent idea of vision, a vision in which the transcendental operated as a useful metaphor for the link between the aesthetic potential of the camera and its mechanical use. For Kirstein and Williams, American Photographs proved, once and for all, that photography, even within the remit of documentary photography, did not constitute merely a dispassionate representation of "real" lives and people. Instead it promised an active, living way to articulate the importance of the vernacular as intrinsic to the modernist project. The representation of the vernacular, under siege one could argue in the 1930s, thus lent itself to a discourse interested in the use-value of photography as a marker for America in both utopian and distopian terms. If Kirstein and Williams were looking for something that could prove the currency of an American vernacular under duress for economic and political reasons, photography seemed to be that thing. In creating images of vernacular life, Evans's camera--according to Kirstein and Williams--could be established as a visionary mechanism in its own right, a useful metaphor for the artist's relationship to his or her subject, to nature and landscape, and to an investigation into representation itself.

This essay takes as its specific starting point Kirstein's assertion that Evans's images represent "much that is best in photography's past and in its American present" (192). The fact that Kirstein and Williams sought to spiritualize the photographic enterprise whilst being attuned to the tensions implicit in the era's political and cultural use of documentary photography, is a matter I have to take into account. Hence the essay shows how Evans, although representative of a particular modernist effort, was also seen as a visionary in a transcendentalist sense, as an artist whose Emersonian aesthetics sought to combine personal vision with national specificity. The issue for both Kirstein and Williams was not only to provide an entry into a definition of the vernacular capable of incorporating the houses, the objects, and faces of the people photographed on a wider metaphorical level, but also the mass of social and philosophical contradictions that make up the documentary project.

As one of the first documentary photographers to be canonized by the art establishment, Evans's success was aided in this respect by Kirstein's and Williams's canny use of an Emersonian rhetoric to connect the vernacular with a transcendent idea of vision. …