Unreal Nature

January 18, 2017

An Aesthetic Idea Has Nothing to Do with Final Results

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:40 am

Evans’s pictures were more likely to [his words] “call attention to the seriousness in certain small things” and “the emptiness of certain large things.”

This is from ‘Walker Evans in 1946/Labor Anonymous’ by Jerry L. Thompson found in Labor Anonymous: Walker Evans edited by Thomas Zander (2016):

Evans was in part a “puritan explorer,” a “disembodied burrowing eye” (Kirstein’s phrase) in search of a vision of his country. This searching for a vision indicates a certain kind of ambition — a literary ambition, one as grand as that expressed by a character created by Evans’s idol James Joyce: Stephen Dedalus, who aspires “to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”

But Evans was not only a visionary explorer of his own country; he was also an artist (however he understood that mysterious, even holy term), a creature with special powers liable to come into play anytime, in front of any subject, even at moments when he didn’t happen to be holding a camera. At such moments, immediate sensuous experience — the ravishing physical presence of some beautiful (to him, at that moment) thing — became, for him, the only thing, the only thing in the world that mattered.

Evans’s susceptibility to immediate sensuous experience was not merely a cosmopolitan dandy’s preference for beautiful, stylish things — good pictures, tasteful furniture, pretty women, etc. His relationship with the beautiful was of another order — not merely stronger, but also different in kind: his love of the things that attracted him was deep, urgent, and terrible.

… An aesthetic idea has nothing to do with final results: it is indeterminate, endlessly stimulating rather than tending toward closure, infinite rather than conclusive. When a scientist examines a rose, he tells us what it is and how it works. When a poet looks at a rose, he might focus on its color, on its scent, on the brevity of its life, on its beauty, on its fragility, on its thorns, on the unimportance of its name, on repeating that name three times in a row.

[line break added] The artist sees a thing (and shows it to us) in a way that prompts associations, worlds of imaginative thinking “animating the mind by opening out for it a prospect into a field of kindred representations” — kindred representations means the stuff of metaphor: related, if unexpected, concepts as well as images — “stretching beyond its [the mind’s] ken” — that is, beyond the range of the normal, rational thinking we use when we consider roses in an everyday, nonpoetic way.

… When we today review Evans’s situation in 1946, we think like art historians assessing a career we understand as a shaped whole, one with a beginning, a middle, and an end. We think of the great “decade of the thirties,” watch it turn into the quieter “decade of the forties,” and anticipate his resurgent reputation following the reissue of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men in 1960, after Agee’s death.

[line break added] But Evans in 1946 was no more aware of the “shape of his career” than he was of Agee’s death in 1955 and of the effect that death would have on his “career.” What he did have, as a constant, was the mark he bore, his identity as an artist, his need to treat everything he encountered in the visible world as a possible occasion to exercise who he was.

[line break added] To a cultural historian, nothing Evans did afterward can compare with the comprehensive magnificence of prints made from the detailed 8×10 negatives he made of long views of the Delaware Valley, southern towns, and rural churches. For Evans the artist, a gutter full of trash glimpsed at his feet (and snapped with his Leica) as he waited to cross a Manhattan street excited him just as much. He told the Time reporters in 1947:

After 20-odd years of work I still have great difficulty maintaining enough calm to operate well, at moments when some sort of perfection is in sight.

He had the same difficulty when I watched him work twenty-five years after that. When “some sort of perfection” (he also called it “my subject”) was in sight, everything else — parking rules, the daily schedule, doctor’s appointments, his characteristic politeness, even his valued personal dignity — ceased to exist, for the moment, as the perfection was embraced, the subject recorded, the brightly colored bit of trash collected from the pavement by a slow, stooping bend of a frail, stiff body.

evans_trash_no3
Walker Evans, Trash #3, New York City,  ~1962-67

… Unlike much of the photojournalism published in magazines such as Life, Evans’s pictures of the American scene were as likely to confound s to gratify a reader’s expectations. Pictures published in Life tended to show the reader/viewer what he expected to see: soldiers are heroic; country doctors are noble, if exhausted; movie stars are glamorous; etc. Evans’s pictures were more likely to [his words] “call attention to the seriousness in certain small things” and “the emptiness of certain large things.”

-Julie

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