"The Transparent Eyeball": On Emerson and Walker Evans

By Blinder, Caroline | Mosaic (Winnipeg), December 2004 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

"The Transparent Eyeball": On Emerson and Walker Evans

Blinder, Caroline, Mosaic (Winnipeg)

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.


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.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

"The Transparent Eyeball": On Emerson and Walker Evans


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?