Magazine article The Spectator

Skilful Simplicity

Magazine article The Spectator

Skilful Simplicity

Article excerpt

Making my way through this arresting exhibition of photographs by Walker Evans (1903-1975), I several times recalled the title of a late poem by Wallace Stevens: 'Not Ideas About the Thing but the Thing Itself. Stevens was a poet who began in lushness and ended with calculated restraint and plainness: 'No longer a battered panache above snow' but 'a scrawny cry' that 'was like/A new knowledge of reality'.

Of course, achieving the effect of simplicity requires at least as much skill as does achieving any other artistic effect. Indeed, the more plain-spoken one wishes to appear, the greater effort one must expend to make skill look like instinct. The deliberately pared-down style of a Hemingway is not less demanding or rhetorical than the blooming periphrases of Henry James, but its subtlety reveals itself in the absorption rather than the efflorescence of intricacy.

It is the same with the famous 'documentary style' of Walker Evans. His stunning photographs - especially those made in the years before 1940 - seem like direct transcriptions of reality: not ideas about the thing but the thing itself. In fact, they are artfully lit, composed and cropped images whose transfixing immediacy is the result of the artist's painstaking mediations. Evans's great collaborator was the 8x10 view camera: an unwieldy, tripod-mounted device that repaid meticulous staging with infinite detail.

As a young man, Evans cultivated literary ambitions. His idol was Joyce. But Joyce's monumentality left little room for followers or epigones. Evans didn't abandon his admiration for Joyce: he qualified it by brandishing a passion for Hemingway. Evans's sensibility was formed by the heady ex-pat atmosphere of Paris in the 1920s. He arrived in the spring of 1926 and spent a little over a year absorbing French and France. He embarked on various literary sketches and translations and began taking the odd snapshot of Parisian life.

Back in New York, Evans met Lincoln Kirstein, the great catalyst for so much American modernism. Kirstein was instrumental in advancing Evans's ambition and career. Evans had been a frustrated writer. By 1930, under the influence of Kirstein and others, he began to realise his true metier. 'I became a passionate photographer,' Evans recalled in 1971. 'Couldn't think about anything else. I just caught it, like a disease. Thought about it and practised it all the time, day by day. …

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