Unreal Nature

January 11, 2017

Their Domain

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:53 am

… In consistently pressing so close to so many subjects, Evans passes some kind of boundary.

This first is from Heinz Liesbrock speaking in his conversation with Thomas Weski found in Walker Evans: Depth of Field edited by John T. Hill and Heinz Liesbrock (2015):

[ … ]

Heinz Liesbrock: … His visual language is emphatically down-to-earth, and it avoids any formal embellishment. It relies entirely on the direct depiction of things in ambient light conditions. At its core lies an inner aloofness that the artist maintains between himself and people and things. He does not seek to establish an empathetic connection, at least not an obvious one. This detachment is the prerequisite that allows phenomena to emerge with exceptional clarity. The artist never enters their domain; he insists on maintaining his own personal space and exclusively follows his own artistic ideas.

Compare that to this, from the essay ‘A “last lap around the track”: Sings and SX-70s’ by Jerry L. Thompson in the same book:


… In the summer of 1973 [when Evans was 70 years old; two years before his death] a technical discovery allowed Evans to harness the energy building up as a result of the various themes attracting him — color, trash, weathering, lettered signs. He discovered a new color camera, the Polaroid SX-70, a tool that promised both directness and immediacy. The camera was small, easy to hold and carry, and had few controls.

[line break added] Its operator had only to look through a large, bright, easy-to-use (even while wearing glasses) viewfinder; focus (by means of a convenient ribbed wheel operated by a single finger); and press the button. The camera could focus on subjects as close as a foot or less, and a handy flash mounted near the lens (so as to produce almost no distracting shadows) allowed the photographer to work in near darkness.


… Many of his portraits are so close that the face or head of the sitter fills the entire picture area (which is only about 3¼ x 3¼ inches). Looking at a number of these can prompt multiple, complex responses in a viewer familiar with Evans’s other pictures. For one thing, the photographer’s contact with the sitters seems real, actual and personal. He is looking at these people, one at a time, apparently with the goal of getting as close to them with his camera as he can.

[line break added] For their part, the sitters look back, in very many cases with attitudes and facial expressions registering some kind of specific response to the photographer’s attention. There are a few “Kodak smiles,” faces prepared with average, pleasant, have-a-nice-day good will. But such responses are not evident in the majority of the close portraits. Often what shows is quite specific, and difficult to place with certainty in some broad, easily nameable category. One gets a sense — a slightly unsettling sense — of looking at people, not at portraits.

Allie Mae Burroughs

Evans’s best-known portrait is the close portrait of Allie Mae Burroughs (identified in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men as Annie Mae Gudger). … There is a tension, or a balance, between the two impulses. On the one hand, a viewer of this picture notices the artist’s rigorous framing of the subject — his severe disposition of the lines of clapboards, of the collar of her patterned dress, of the severely parted hair, of the tension lines in her brow that echo the grain of the wooden clapboards behind her.

[line break added] On the other hand, the artist’s placement of his hyper-descriptive [8 x 10 view] camera so close to his subject ensures that any gesture visible in the subject’s face (along with such minute details as signs of early aging, etc.) will threaten to take over the picture by virtue of the strength of human content so forcefully described. The picture is balanced precariously between artistic shaping and raw, assertive human presence.

Evans’s late SX-70 portraits are unsettling because, in them, this precarious balance begins to topple. In consistently pressing so close to so many subjects, Evans passes some kind of boundary. He is still in control of the pictures — he remains a master photographer — but the visible elements of this control are so diminished that the human presence of the subjects — and consequently his desire for, his reaching out toward, his desperate need for something this human presence will give him — threaten to overwhelm the artistic intention of making pictures at all.

[line break added] The act of taking these pictures was not a means to make or please friends, or intended to set up some real-world activity (a date, etc.) at some future time. The act of taking these pictures was the real-world activity. This work was his life.


My previous post from this book is here.




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