Unreal Nature

June 10, 2015

Refusing Speed

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:49 am

… “the quick nervousness of pictures is a new language.” Evans sought to resist all this.

This is from Walker Evans: the magazine work by David Campany (2014):

Evans grew ever more keen to put clear water between his concerns and the dominant formulae of the photo-essay developed by Life with its pacy and spectacular design, narrative flow and often trite messages. Henry Luce had set out to ensure Life was “the best magazine for look-through purposes” while its editor Daniel Longwell proclaimed: “the quick nervousness of pictures is a new language.” Evans sought to resist all this. His pieces for Fortune had no beginnings, middles or conclusions. Each contemplates a small cluster of related themes, refusing speed at every turn, to remain open-ended.

[ … ]

… Executives expected glitz but Evans would arrive with no assistants and work in natural light with just a hand-held Leica. He encouraged others to do the same. As American culture elevated individualism above all, it became difficult to make portraits that did not exaggerate, stereotype or brand in some way. Magazines preferred dramatic lighting and heavy symbolism. the overwrought work of Yousuf Karsh was worshipped widely but Evans thought it the worst of all. By contrast the quiet portraits of artists and writers made by Henri Cartier-Bresson were much more to his taste. In a New York Times review of the Frenchman’s book The Decisive Moment (1952) he wrote: “I happen to think that if you must photograph personalities, this neo-news style is the way to do it.” But Evans avoided the famous: “Celebrities are suspect. It’s an impure thing to do — to easy. To begin with, people are more interested in the famous person than the photograph; a photographer can get away with anything.”


After the 1950s Evans photographed people only occasionally for Fortune but the preference for understatement and anonymity remained. In his writing he often made reference to the ethical problems of photographing strangers. In ‘People and Places in Trouble’ (Fortune, March 1961), a feature on “new unemployment and old poverty,” he let the reader know the sitters “were all informed, voluntary (and generous) participants.” He also made a deft connection between the mute stillness of photography and the paralyzing effects of unemployment:

“They are not the hundred neediest cases — or the million. Mostly they are just laid-off citizens. They speak with their eyes. People out of work are not given to talking much about the one thing on their minds. You only sense, by indirection, degrees of anger, shades of humiliation and degrees of fear. The truth is, of course, that unemployment, let alone poverty, has to be lived to be understood and felt. This is the realm of chronic indigestion, incipient stupefaction of the will, and hardening of the spirit. The real state of mind of the jobless cannot be read about in the Stygian murk of sociologist prose, or the Government Report. The plain non-artistic photograph may come closer to the matter, which is sheer personal distress.”

from ‘People and Places in Trouble’

My previous post from Campany’s book is here.




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