"The Transparent Eyeball": On Emerson and Walker Evans

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

"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. One way for Kirstein and Williams to define Evans as a visionary artist was by aligning the process of photography with Emerson's original desire to absorb and be absorbed into nature, to become a transparent rather than simply reflective eye. In following Emerson's dictum that "The act of seeing and the thing seen, the seer and the spectacle [...] are one" (11), the transcendental ethos is aligned with the camera's ability to capture the real and the spiritual, the native and the universal simultaneously. Hence, Evans's images of vernacular America, of regional architecture, objects, signs, and people become representative of a "moment of seeing" in which a secular vision of America is given sacred implications.

The idea of reinserting a sacred purpose into the photographic project became part of the era's attempts to codify photography as a medium with far-reaching metaphoric, aesthetic, and cultural ramifications. In this context, the combination of a self-effacing aspect with a moment of total vision--"I am nothing; I see all"--in itself suggests a constant oscillation between positions behind and in front of a metaphorical camera; positions which, incidentally, also mimic and reflect the role of the critic vis-a-vis the subject of photography.

On first sight, it may appear contradictory to connect a spiritualized rendition of the vernacular with a photographer such as Evans, famous for his rendition of the more subtle nuances of man-made objects, for his photographs of towns and places static and in repose. Nevertheless, what Kirstein and Williams realized was that in order for photography to be both illuminative and symbolic, the quality of the vernacular actually shown was not really the issue. Rather than a question of authenticity and veracity, the importance of the vernacular lay in what happened to it when framed by the photographer's eye, a point clarified by Evans himself:

     A distinct point, though, is made in the lifting of these objects
     from their original settings. The point is that this lifting, is,
     in the raw, exactly what the photographer is doing with his
     machine, the camera, anyway, always. The photographer, the artist,
     "takes" a picture: symbolically he lifts an object or a combination
     of objects, and in so doing he makes a claim for that object or
     that composition, and a claim for his act of seeing in the first
     place. The claim is that he has rendered his object in some way
     transcendent, and that in each instance his vision has penetrating
     validity. (qtd. in Thompson 229)

Evans's description of the "lifting of objects" is more than a way to provide timeless or classical depictions of American society; it is about transposing a particular and emphatically personal point of view. Transcendence for Evans is not about transcending a historical context and/or social parameters; it is about "making a claim for the act of seeing" itself. Kirstein's realization of this claim forms a significant part of his commentary on American Photographs, in which he stresses the "penetrating validity" of Evans's photographs. According to Kirstein:

     Physically the pictures in this book exist as separate prints. They
     lack the surface, obvious continuity of the moving picture, which
     by its physical nature compels the observer to perceive a series of
     images as parts of a whole. But these photographs, of necessity
     seen singly, are not conceived as isolated pictures made by the
     camera turned indiscriminately here or there. In intention and in
     effect they exist as a collection of statements deriving from and
     presenting a consistent attitude. Looked at in sequence they are
     overwhelming in their exhaustiveness of detail, their poetry of
     contrast, and, for those who wish to see it, their moral
     implication. (193)

Kirstein's "moral implication" connects the belief in photography as a potentially ethical art form with the rectitude of the photographer's eye and, by extension, his or her choice of subject. "The exhaustiveness of detail" must coexist with the photographer's "consistent attitude"; hence the thing itself (the object photographed) and the way the photographer looks at it cannot be separated. According to Kirstein: "no matter how sensitive an artist's eye may be, it is irrelevant unless fixed on its special subjects. [...] The wavelength of his [Evans's] vision is exactly equalled by the radiation of the images which attract and repel it" (194).

The desired alignment between the subject and its moment of capture reiterates a crucial issue for Evans, Kirstein, and Williams: namely the question of how to deal with human experience when it threatens to overwhelm our normal conceptual framework. In this respect, "isolated pictures" are not enough; the image has to be grounded in the photographer's viewpoint; it has to derive from and represent a particular subject, which in turn refers back to the photographer's unique "wavelength of vision." This concept of a unique and "consistent attitude" is a fundamental starting point for an investigation into the photographer's visionary capabilities, and it exists partly because Emerson had given Williams and Kirstein the necessary language to define an American sense of self-hood in which the idea of vision was a practical as well as spiritual given. Not only does Emerson's "Nature" lend itself to a philosophy in which the American landscape and the portrayal of its people is symptomatic of an ideal of democracy, "a universe that is the property of every individual in it," but it defines this process in distinctly ocular terms (Emerson 20).

The focus on the ocular, together with a belief in commonality and collective desire, becomes fundamental to a photographic tradition that believes in art's ability to synthesize the political with the visionary. In Emerson in particular, the ocular and visionary ability of the poet/writer/artist is based on his immersion into the surrounding landscape: "Wise men [...] fasten words again to visible things. The moment our discourse rises above the ground of familiar facts and is inflamed by passion or exalted by thought, it clothes itself in images. A man conversing in earnest [...] will find that a material image more or less luminous arises in his mind" (22).

For Kirstein, location, and particularly the unification of location and inhabitant, are fundamental to Evans and they find their proof in Evans's ability to record "alike the vulgarization [...] and the naive creative spirit, imperishable and inherent in the ordinary man." Able to "elevate fortuitous accidents of juxtaposition into ordained design," Evans is presented as a mediator of the secular as it becomes divine, or, one could say, of the secular as it is made divine through Evans's camera. Evans's fragments gain their use-value through their ability to gesture symbolically. As Kirstein writes: "His eye is on the symbolic fragments of nineteenth-century American taste, crumpled pressed-tin Corinthian capitals, debased baroque ornament, wooden rustification and cracked cast-iron moulding, survivals of our early imperialistic expansion" (194). As such, transcendentalism in ocular terms is not only about the unification of the individual with the spiritual but also about finding order amongst the fragments of material life, a reconciliation between the private and the public, the political, from "imperialistic expansion" to the aesthetics of nineteenth-century "American taste."

The mixture of old and new, hand-made objects and industrial manufacture, is not dissimilar to the mix-and-match attitude employed in ideological terms by all those American writers, including Emerson, trying to define a "native spirit." There are problems in this, just as there is a real risk that transcendentalism, transposed from its philosophical roots, will become just another catch phrase for certain ideas and juxtapositions that occur as naturally within photography as within any other art form. Translating transcendentalism in a twentieth-century context into something synonymous with a desire for spirituality, and by extension into distaste for the commercialisation of art (a distaste witnessed, incidentally, in Kirstein's comments on the 1930s as an "epoch crass and corrupt" [194]), has its own problems. Assuming, for instance, that transcendentalism originated in a desire for spiritual and intellectual reintegration, one cannot further suppose that the idea of integration is somehow intrinsic to American art in the 1930s, even if it does bring forward the issue of coherency and democracy, the very tropes that were under siege during the Depression. Regardless, it is no surprise that documentary photography was actively asserting--even while questioning--the ideals of a democratic heritage. For Kirstein, Evans's images record "an age before an imminent collapse," and for this reason, they inadvertently applaud democratic ideals that are now corrupted: "His work, print after print of it, seems to call to be shown before the decay which it portrays flattens all sagging roof-trees and rusts all the twisted automobile chassis. Here are the records of the age before an imminent collapse [...] to salvage whatever was splendid for the future reference of the survivors (196).

Within the idea of a democratic heritage, Kirstein outlines the importance of the visionary as a way to incorporate the transcendental and the vernacular into "the record of an age." In this respect, documentary photography, although based on a representation of the living, the discernible, partakes of the visionary aspects of the transcendental by promulgating the importance of regionalism as an internal as well as external landscape. Thus Emerson's nineteenth-century faith in the illuminative aspects of nature in a twentieth-century context can become Kirstein's "twisted automobile chassis" which, despite its non-salvageable aspect, nevertheless forms an essential component of the landscape of the twentieth century (Kirstein 196). It is because the photographer is visionary that these seemingly inconsequential objects can become both prophetic and splendid.

Crossing the border between a nineteenth- and twentieth-century version of transcendentalism in order to define a main current within the arts was in many ways an unspoken tendency in the 1930s. The fact that it has lost its currency has as much to do with a desire to bring photography into the twenty-first century, as it has to do with a reluctance to see early-twentieth-century photography in anything other than modernist terms. The question, more specifically, is why writers would seek to contemporize photography through a possibly antiquated notion of transcendentalism. Kirstein and Williams share not only a definition of photography based on its ability to transcend people and places in distinctly spiritualized terms, but also certain literary contemporaries and antecedents for whom the vernacular was linked to the transcendental aspirations of the "true" American artist. Some of these antecedents are worth considering briefly.

In Vernon Lewis Parrington's Main Currents in American Thought 1927-1930, a seminal piece of literary criticism of the time, transcendentalism is defined as an idealistic point of view. By seeing it as a point of view rather than an embodied ideal, a perspective rather than an aim, Parrington avoids having to locate transcendentalism in a specific historical moment. In the process, transcendentalism becomes less reliant on having to prove its philosophical status, thus providing the framework for a reading of transcendentalist thought as a form of cultural movement. The appeal of such a movement to artists--and not just during the Depression--for whom photography was seen as no less than a way to re-educate the American public, is therefore no coincidence.

Another seminal literary critic who grasped the ramifications of transcendentalist thought across decades and literary genres was F.O. Matthiessen. In his American Renaissance, Matthiessen took a vision of American culture largely based on transcendentalist thought and attached it to a tradition of literary excellence. For Matthiessen, the philosophical and ethical ramifications of the transcendentalist belief in the intrinsic goodness of nature and the importance of self-reliance could be translated, without any necessary diffusion, into a literary vision, a vision in which art became not only compatible but essential to social justice. Matthiessen's main vision is crucial because it allows a reading of Emerson's aesthetics in terms of art and artists not directly linked to the transcendentalist movement in a nineteenth-century context.

Parrington and Matthiessen are two examples of writers for whom the idea of transcendentalism translated into a wider search for an undiluted American voice. What Kirstein and Williams did was pair this with their search for a discourse on photography capable of incorporating the language of justice and democracy. This partly explains why Emersonian ideals regained ethical, if not popular, currency both during the Depression and after; it does not, however, in itself validate a primarily Emersonian reading of all documentary photography. Most of the photographers working within the auspices of the Farm Security Administration under Roy Striker, for example (and it is worth remembering that Walker Evans was one such photographer), would have gone to some lengths to remove themselves from a possibly antiquated and ineffective (in their eyes) nineteenth-century vision of democracy. Nevertheless, as I have argued, the Emersonian ethos cannot be ignored. On the one hand, it lies within the vernacular language accompanying the images, a language which both mimics Emerson's belief in the importance of the language of "the common man" and Whitman's dream of an American poetry based on inclusiveness and democracy. On the other hand, it also lies in an aesthetic of a more formal and strategic nature in which the visionary is described in ocular terms. According to Emerson in "Nature": "The light is always identical in its composition, but it falls on a great variety of objects, and by so falling is first revealed to us, not in its own form, for it is formless, but in theirs; in like manner, thought only appears in the objects it classifies" (18).

Emerson's description of the "transparent eyeball" functions as a metaphor for the artist's ability to discern the essential nature of objects and as a way to stress that the transcendental is not formless. The "transparent eyeball" reflects nature's particulars, much in the way that a camera lens exposes; and in the process illuminates, as Kirstein put it, the "unrelieved, bare-faced, revelatory" facts (196). Thus while an element of revelation exists in the procedure, the intent of the artist still has to appear as an ordering principle "in the objects it classifies" (Emerson 18). What is crucial is the fact that reality is always actively constituted. Just as nature has to be experienced visually for its true meaning to shine forth, the photographic eye has to be present to capture the image. Contrary to what one might think, the "transparent eyeball" is not a free-floating entity, but a necessary link between the observer and the landscape surrounding him or her. Emerson is often misread in this regard, as many assume that within this actively constituted reality the universal always prevails over the particular and the individual, the timeless over the temporal. Rather, Emerson's belief in the importance of the particular is not about absolute unity in a philosophical sense but about the mechanisms we have at our disposal to describe things in an honest and truthful manner. This is not to say that Emerson did not believe in a fundamental god-driven unity underlying the worldly flux, but rather that art's role was to provide an insight into that unity. The only way to do this was through the accurate description of the particulars with which it was constituted, and I would argue that this is as apt a definition of the documentary ethos as one is likely to find.

Going back to Matthiessen, then, a link can be formed between Emerson's use of the "transparent eyeball" as a precursor to the classification of objects and Evans's choice of distinctly vernacular objects in American Photographs. In Matthiessen's use of transcendentalism, the insistence on the common life as the foundation for art embodies an American ideal, an ideal in which art should equally express and be representative of the American people. This desire for an art that corresponds in an affirmative and true way to actual lives is, in many ways, the defining factor of Evans's aesthetic. This is not to say that documentary photography cannot evaluate the life it portrays nor that it cannot be politicized in a complex manner. What it does accentuate is the importance placed on photography's ability to embrace "the common life" and the vernacular symptomatic of that life by writers like Kirstein and Williams.

While Kirstein and Williams were engaged in creating their own canon of American photography, Matthiessen's insight into the importance of transcendentalism for an understanding of America's literary psyche was also facilitated by a process of authorial canonization. While Matthiessen's chief aim was to situate such writers as Hawthorne, Melville, and Whitman within American academia, Matthiessen's "interrelation" between "the stimulus that lay in the transcendental conviction that the word must become one with the thing" also functions in the context of twentieth-century photography. Matthiessen himself intuitively grasped at the possibility by linking "the effect of the nineteenth century's stress on seeing, of its identification of the poet with the prophet or seer" with "the connection, real if somewhat intangible, between the emphasis on vision and that put on light by the advancing art of photography" (xiv). When Matthiessen spoke of "the inevitability of the symbol as a means of expression for an age that was determined to make a fusion between appearance and what lay behind it" (14), he was speaking not merely of the nineteenth century but in the context of his own time, namely the 1930s and 40s.

Less than a year after the publication of American Renaissance, another seminal piece of literary criticism, Alfred Kazin's On Native Grounds, traced the lineage from a revival of naturalism in the nineteenth century to the documentary efforts of the 1930s. For Kazin, "the two great associations of the literature of social description--the New Deal and the camera" provided a literature in which "words and pictures were not only mutually indispensable, a kind of commentary upon each other, but curiously interchangeable." Pragmatically, Kazin would state: "nothing in this new literature, indeed, stands out as clearly as its attempts to use and even imitate the camera" (500). Kazin--like Matthiessen--wanted to extend the progressive reform ideas of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in which a desired union between labour and culture was to mimic the union between life and art. While Matthiessen's book, published after the Depression, was born out of a belief in the survival skills of the American people (made manifest paradoxically by the great literary efforts of the nineteenth century), Kazin, from a more recognizably leftist perspective, recognized photography as an effective means to "quicken the sensibility of fellowship" in an era that needed to be reminded of its collective status (501). More importantly, Kazin, like Matthiessen, saw writing and visual perception in the twentieth century as linked to the nineteenth century and, in particular, to Emersonian idealism. In Kazin's assessment of the documentary project, Emerson is strategically invoked in ways similar to Kirstein and Williams, linking democracy and multiplicity, discontinuity and "truth": "the camera [...] in itself so significant a medium of tension, fastened upon the atmosphere of tension. And if the accumulation of visual scenes seemed only a collection of 'mutually repellent particles' as Emerson said of his sentences, was not that discontinuity, that havoc of pictorial sensations, just the truth of what the documentary mind saw before it in the thirties?" (500).

The idea of documentary photography as a "havoc of pictorial sensations" pleased Kazin's anarchic sensibility, but more importantly, it accentuated what Kirstein and Williams had sought to establish, namely documentary's role in supplying a measure of faith in the survival of American democracy. Evans may not have been particularly concerned with an optimistic vision of America, but he knew, like Kazin, that the increasing disenchantment with the dream of a national destiny was deep-rooted in the need to affirm what it actually means to be American. This paradox, between showing political, social, and economic reality and simultaneously reaffirming a belief in a democratic America, is often revealed in the distance between what people write on Evans and his actual aesthetics. In American Photographs, one could argue, Evans's images enable a more complex vision of unification and democracy than the accompanying introduction by Kirstein, and yet this does not mean that Kirstein is unaware of the political context of the images.

By comparison, Williams's political stance is more ambiguous. In regard to American Photographs, Williams goes only so far as to say "the total effect is of a social upheaval, not a photographic picnic" (qtd. in Rabb 310). The question remains of course, what social upheaval is Williams actually thinking about? Is it the upheaval of economic destitution or the upheaval of how we think about photography as a native art? "In Evans's pictures also we are seeing fields of battle after the withdrawal of the forces engaged. The jumbled wreckage, human and material, is not always so grim in the present case but for all the detachment of the approach the effect is often no less poignant" (Williams, Literature 310). Comparing Evans to the civil war photographer Brady, Williams makes a point about the dustbowl farmers occupying a war zone in the midst of the Depression, but his use of the word poignant is still more melancholic than anger-inducing. There is no call for real political action, no sense that these images have an actual force that supersedes their artistic intent. On the contrary, when Williams starts to summarize what we may actually learn about the human condition from Evans, he configures it not as a politicized manifesto, but in tones directly reminiscent of the opening paragraph of Emerson's "Nature." In answer to Emerson's famous rhetorical questions, "Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs?" (Emerson 7), Williams responds: "and we shall see our own country and its implications the better for Evans's work and come to realize that the realm of art is here quite as well as elsewhere. [...] The artist must save us. He's the only one who can. First we have to see. Or first we have to be taught to see" (Williams 310).

Williams's use of Emerson is a case in point. Not only does he insert an Emersonian gesture by calling for a uniquely American art form, he does so by invoking--like Kirstein--the necessity for an art that may liberate the artist from the dictates of historical and geographical placement and simultaneously stress the importance of regionalism and tradition. To a certain extent, one could call this a mild form of nationalistic schizophrenia; a schizophrenia which is as centred in the Depression as it was in the warm up to the Civil War: the feeling that one's source of national pride is slipping away and being corrupted at the same time. Tellingly, it mimics the transcendentalist desire in the mid-nineteenth century to articulate an indigenous vernacular untainted and pure. In writing on the romantic enterprise within American letters, the critic Brown puts it this way: "Romanticism enabled Emerson and others to raise cosmopolitan yet native standards for American expression because romanticism's true scope was global, its ultimate interest concerned the whole of things rather than one part or another. [...] The unlocalizable, mobile sense of power that made romanticism, for Americans, an import not so much appropriated or conformed to but discovered within the capacities of the self and empirically affirmed in the confrontations with native place" (7).

In this context, one could say that Williams, Emerson, and Kirstein share an ambiguous relationship to the concept of American democracy, even as they are engaged in the rehabilitation of a romantic discourse. The "confrontation with native place" colours the romantic thrust within the documentary project even as it affords the photographer "a mobile sense of power"; allowing him or her to empirically affirm those "native standards" necessary for a vernacular art form. However, grounding the photographer's ocular abilities in his capacity to illuminate the symbolic quality of things, people, and places also means a necessarily complex manoeuvring of what the artist's purpose is in the first place. The chief problem of the notion that Emersonian transparency is akin to the mechanistic procedure of the camera eye is that it implies that the object shining like a light through the lens must necessarily inhabit a realm distinct from present reality, that the meaning of things is reflected but not necessarily present in the photograph. Like Coleridge's definition of the symbol, Emerson's notion of transparency is based on a presence, which always refers back to something larger. In Coleridge's terms, "a symbol [...] is characterised as by the translucence of the eternal through and in the temporal. It always partakes of the reality which it renders intelligible; and while it enunciates the whole, abides itself as a living part in that unity, of which it is the representative" (30). In the end, the representative aspect of the transcendental cannot help but slot itself into a romantic tradition in which the local becomes universalized and is made classical because it speaks to us of things inherently human and real. When Williams writes that Evans must teach us to actually see, he--like Coleridge--makes the eternal manifest in the temporal: "Evans saw what he saw here, in this place--this was his universal. In this place he saw what is universal. By his photographs he proves it" (Williams, 310).

In American Photographs, the content of the moment of translucence, its proof in a sense, is largely equal to the actual experience of seeing the images side by side. Hence Evans, according to Williams, like Emerson and Coleridge before him, sets a standard for art by which the transcendental becomes an actual prospect. By necessity, it can never become more than this. All it can hope for is to render how the photographic project makes the "eternal" manifest through the temporal, as captured through the camera lens. As such, the "transparent eyeball" is less a concept than a metaphor for the camera eye, and less a metaphor than a certain prescription for activity. The event of transparency becomes a way to picture the way meanings come forth from behind their representations. It is, in other words, about critical vision and how such a vision is defined. For Emerson, transparency manifests itself only as an attribute of the medium lying between two discontinuous realms: the essence of the transparent eyeball is to be between two things. In the grammar of seeing, the eye sees through one thing to the next thing; the lens is transparent only in that it plays its part in the larger enterprise of vision, which again is proven through Emerson's insistence on figures of actual physical sight, confirming once more that the transparent eyeball passage is, above all, a paradigm of visual perception.

In the "transparent eyeball" passage, Emerson says that "mean egotism has vanished" (11) but the eyeball becomes transparent only when some higher force looks down upon the transparent eye configured in the text. Hence, the meaning that appears in the figure of the eyeball is always linked to the artist's own identity. The "I" of the text is also the eye that sees itself seeing and that oversees its own projection into the frame of the photograph, even if it is not physically visible. Paradoxically, the act of seeing is always in some way a simultaneous act of affirmation.

Transparency, therefore, far from signifying a passive state, manufactures its own creation. It affirms the presence of the photographer in the act of photographing. It is a mode of awareness of the necessary distance, as well as proximity, between the photographer and the objects photographed. The metaphor of transparency illustrates the transcendentalist enterprise insofar as transcendentalism is preoccupied with ways to negotiate the interval between natural signs and their supernatural meanings, or one could say, the representation of an American vernacular that is symbolic and real at the same time. For Kirstein and Williams, it is also a suitable way to question how the photographs, illuminated in a moment of transparency, stand in relation to the self, the photographer, and the things photographed.

Within this context, the ideal of encyclopaedic representation, and the ability to illustrate the symbolic nature of the vernacular, together with the transparent eyeball, both lift and ground the American project. This particular vision of Evans, in which an ecstatic definition of photography partakes of the romantic project, is ever-present within the American arts. This project is frequently compromised by political, social, and economic conditions, but it is still potent enough to present the photographer as part prophet, part visionary. It is no coincidence, then, that Kirstein can claim that Evans's vision is contemporary, even as he "recognizes in his photographs a way of seeing which has appeared persistently throughout the American past" (Kirstein 198).

With this in mind, placing the metaphor of the transcendental eyeball at the fore-front of Evans's work is more than merely an attempt to define some form of American romanticism independent of Europe's. It illuminates how photography, like writing in the 1930s, was founded on a desire to define a modernist aesthetic in which the search for transcendence could comfortably coexist with the camera's mimetic capabilities. Evans, in a 1971 interview with Leslie George Katz, steadfastly insisted on linking the idea of transcendence with his own craft: "It's logical to say that what I do is an act of faith. Other people may call it conceited, but I have faith and conviction. [...] I think that what I am doing is valid and worth doing, and I use the word transcendent. That's very pretentious, but if I'm satisfied that something transcendent shows in a photograph I've done, that's it. It's there, I've done it" (Incognito 19; emph. Evans's). Even in the extreme rendering of the ecstatic experience that it is the transparent eyeball, instrumental procedures are described for the purpose of duplication and application. Thus even Emerson's spontaneous vision remains decisively empirical, as does Evans's; there is discipline needed for the drawing out of more perfect sight. As Emerson puts it, "what use is genius, if the organ is too convex or too concave, and cannot find a focal distance within the actual horizon of human life?" (205).

The line between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in photographic and philosophical terms nevertheless remains a diffused one. In this respect, Evans's almost instantaneous canonization, a process facilitated by his ability to present himself as a sage and accomplished photographer from the onset, has, oddly enough, stood him in bad stead when it comes to examining his philosophical and literary lineage. One reason lies in the seductiveness of Evans's self-assured stance as a self-made photographer. When asked whether he knew many photographers during the 1930s, Evans responded: "No, I wasn't drawn to the world of photography. In fact I was against it. I was a maverick. As a matter of fact, I really think I was on the right track right away, and I don't think I've made many false moves. I now feel almost mystical about it. I think something was guiding me, was working through me. I feel that I was doing better than I knew how, that it was almost fate. I really was inventing something, but I didn't know it" (qtd. in Cummings 86).

Evans's tendency to mythologize his own practice is seductive, partly because it supports a reading of him as above external influences, partly because it positions him both inside and outside the establishment. When asked about the importance of the 1938 exhibition at the MOMA, Evans readily confirmed its importance: "It was like a calling card. It made it. The catalogue particularly, was a passport for me. It established my style and everything. [...] As time went by it became more and more important. It turned out to be a landmark. [...] It established the documentary style as art in photography. The Modern is a very influential place" (qtd in Cummings 96).

Despite Evans's claim for "establishing the documentary style as art in photography," the writing on Evans, as we have seen, forms part of a much longer philosophical lineage. Nevertheless, many critics still persist in reading American Photographs through its ability to portray a popular expectation of what is classically American, and the emotive context of why so many expect and desire a comfortably canonical vision of America is not to be underestimated. Thus for many, Evans's images still speak to an idea of America as somehow beyond the forces of corporate capitalism, an idea that is partly sentimental, partly pastoral in its logic. Evans's choice of locations, his eye for the use-value of the inanimate and its aesthetic and emotive qualities nevertheless all indicate that he instinctively chooses objects, from coca-cola signs to worn out wooden utensils, with a very clear and crafty sense that they could be read in emotive terms. The fact that his seemingly distanced perspective, aided by a two dimensional sense of flatness and careful arrangement of characters on a proportional line, is different from the angled and heroically inflicted imagery of photographers such as Dorothea Lange does not mean that Evans aimed for uncompromising representations of Depression era culture. In creating a discourse of the vernacular as more than the sum total of actual lived existence, Evans took the idea of vision as inherent in the encyclopaedic and vernacular nature of photography and allowed it to align itself with Emerson's idea of transparency. When Evans made "a claim for the act of seeing as rendering the object transcendent," he also paradoxically confirmed Kirstein and William's supposition that, of all the arts, photography, despite its compromised position, would remain the most ethical (qtd in Thompson 229).


Brown, Lee Rust. The Emerson Museum & Practical Romanticism and the Pursuit of the Whole. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1997.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. "The Statesman's Manual." Lay Sermons. Ed. R.J. White. The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Vol. 6. Gen. Ed. Kathleen Coburn. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1969, 3-52.

Cummings, Paul. "Walker Evans." Artists in their Own Words: Interviews. London: St. Martin's Press, 1979. 23-31.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. "Nature." The Portable Emerson. Ed. Carl Bode. New York: Penguin Books, 1946. 7-51.

Evans, Walker. American Photographs. New York: MOMA, 1938.

_____. Incognito. New York: Eakins Press Foundation, 1995.

Kazin, Alfred. On Native Grounds. New York: Reynal and Hitchcock, 1942.

Kirstein, Lincoln. "Photographs of America: Walker Evans." American Photographs. New York: MOMA, 1938, 189-198.

Lange, Dorothea. American Photographs. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1994.

Matthiessen, F.O. American Renaissance. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1941.

Parrington, Vernon Louis. Main Currents in American Thought 1927-1930. New York: Harcourt Brace and Co., 1930.

Rabb, Jane M., ed. Literature and Photography: Interactions 1840-1990. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1995.

Thompson, J.L., ed. Walker Evans at Work. London: Thames and Hudson, 1984.

Williams, William Carlos. "Sermon with a Camera." Literature and Photography: Interactions 1840-1990. Ed. Jane M. Rabb. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1995, 309-312.

CAROLINE BLINDER is a lecturer in English and American Literature at Goldsmiths College, University of London. She is the author of A Self-made Surrealist: Ideology and Aesthetics in the Work of Henry Miller (2000) plus articles on Surrealism, twentieth-century American photography, Fascism, and writing in the 1930s. She is currently completing a book on the intersections between writing and photography between 1934 and 1959.

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