Honest weights, square dealings
Essay by Harry Nankin published in The Age newspaper, April 6, 1996 reviewing books Walker Evans: a biography by Belinda Rathbone and Yosemite: Ansel Adams by Andrea Stillman & Michael Fischer
Born mere months apart on opposite sides of turn-of-the-century America, the parallel lives of Walker Evans and Ansel Adams were contrary to almost every way bar two: their fundamental visual instincts and profound impact on photography. Early in their careers, each independently rejected the soft-focus “pictorialism” of the salons as well as the facile experimentalism of the inter-war avant garde to embrace the revelatory power of “straight” photography almost as a moral imperative.
Evan’s coolly understated records of the Great Depression helped establish social documentary photography as art. Adam’s Sierra views forged his reputation as the nation’s quintessential landscapist and monochrome aesthetician. Though much has been published about each, Rathbone’s Evans and Stillman and Fischer’s Adams offer fresh insights into their thinking and seeing.
Rathbone’s is the first complete biography of Evans. Despite the author’s admitted affection for her subject, it is a meticulously impartial presentation of a brilliant, urbane and deeply troubled man: taciturn, alcoholic, misogynist, narcissistic. Sparsely illustrated and textually plain, it is nevertheless an informative, anecdote-peppered treatise refreshingly free of psychic speculation or semiotic posturing; Rathbone unjudgmentally allows the story of Evan’s disaffected youth and bohemian adulthood, his father’s infidelity and his own womanising, his early under-achievement and later intellectualism, his adolescent disillusionment and adult flight from bourgeois values, to unearth and link his personality and art.
Bilingual, widely read and avidly Francophile, Evan’s aesthetic mirrored his mature world view and Baudilarian mentors: cynical, pessimistic, committed to “revealing the naked truth” and suspicious of “self-conscious artiness”. Impressed by Eugene Atget’s views of old Paris and the singular power of Paul Strand’s Blind Woman, New York, 1916, Evans adopted the metaphor of “an open window” to evoke the honesty of eye he craved. Rathbone’s chronicling of Evan’s hard-won 1936 Alabama sharecropper pictures vividly encapsulates what was best in the resulting work: simply composed portraits neither obviously cruel nor sympathetic, “at once resolutely unspectacular and shockingly real”. In the ‘40s he was among the first to take the goal of objectivity into city subways. Conceptually akin to the impassive passengers in Honore Daumier’s Third-Class Carriageexecuted a century earlier, these furtively captured moments starkly isolate the fading mystery of anonymous lives. In preferring the lonely, withered and decayed, even his architectural studies exude the pervasive pathos that distinguished everything he recorded. As Rathbone observes: he “cared less about the present than about discerning what the present would someday look like as the past”.
Despite the social relevance of much of his work, Rathbone dismisses any views of Evans as driven or idealistic. What appeared in his viewfinder was often part of another plan: without the infectious creative energy of writer-friend James Agee, a patron’s project or an employer’s deadline Evans would frequently slump into directionless lethargy. Aristocratic in temperament, elitist and apolitical to the end, he was “subversive” in vision alone. Thus, the author reports that when visiting poor communities, “the more he photographed them in their plight, the greater was his own sense of well-being”. Surveying his life as a photographer, critic, collector and raconteur, she concludes that rather than being in any sense a radical, his contribution was, above all, that of “an arbiter of taste”, “a connoisseur” of man-made America. That Walker Evans is an inspiration to generations of photographers is, judging by Rathbone’s account, not a measure of his character but a testament to the clarity of his perceptions.
Belinda Rathbone reports that, unlike many of his contemporaries, Ansel Adams deplored Walker Evans’s photographs as “atrocious” misrepresentations of the real America. His response was hardly surprising. As much as Walker Evans was dogged by “uneven technique”, was private and shunned nature as “boring”, Ansel Adams was a craft-orientated teacher, patiently successful self-publicisist and ardent conservationist. Stillman and Fischer’s new book is not a full-blown biography but a celebration of the link between the artist and his life-long inspiration: the spectacular Californian canyon of Yosemite. In a succinct introduction supplemented by a substantial compendium of Adams’s speeches, articles and letters, Michael Fischer eloquently traces the story of how the man and the place became “bound together” in private life and public consciousness. Sandwiched between essay and afterword are more than 90 fine duotone reproductions of many of Adams’s best-known Sierra prints.
The text reveals Adams as an optimist with an unwavering sense of purpose: hard working, gregarious, unself-consciously Amerocentric. A forthright and articulate advocate of wilderness and the national park idea, for half a century he railed against what he saw as bureaucratic mismanagement and corporate greed. His prime target: “the huge and aggressive business known as Travel”. His verbal weapons: fact and wit. For instance, in typically amusing mode he denounced the mischievous logic of developers whose supposedly “tiny” impacts claim to leave 95 per cent untouched: “This is as valid as the statement that a beautiful woman lost as eye, but that is nothing – only five per cent of her whole corporeal surface!”. An effective lobbyist and one-time director of the Sierra Club, Fischer considers him to still be “the best known environmentalist since John Muir”.
The odd juxtaposition of Adams’s polemic and prints in this one slim volume incidentally brings into focus disjunctures between his naturalist’s sensibility and photographic claims. He deplored Yosemite’s commercialisation as a “gigantuan curio”. Yet his own mass-produced images popularised its most monumental features. He emphasized nature’s “emotional relationship to everyday life” but the drama of his interpretations convey an exciting otherness unconnected to normality. He valorised the direct “experience” of wilderness yet the luminous beauty of his prints resolutely encouraged vicarious contemplation.
Though conceived as art, Adams unhesitatingly disseminated his finest photographs as exhibits and publications promoting environmental awareness. Michael Fischer eulogises the pivotal influence of Adams’s 1900 treatise This is the American Earth on his own life and on American culture. In doing so, he quite overlooks the importance of Adams’s 1938 volume The Sierra Nevada and John Muir Trail which helped move Franklin Roosevelt to establish Kings Canyon National Park south of Yosemite. Fischer’s national preoccupations also understate Adams’s indirect global impact on conservation through the efforts of those following his example – not least, photographers David Tatnall and Peter Dombrovskis in this country.
Overshadowing such quibbles, the book’s premier offering is neither historical nor aesthetic but its elegant explication of a quality of relationship to locale increasingly unusual in this virtual-fetishising world. As Fischer perceptively notes: for Ansel Adams, Yosemite was what the Spanish call la querencia, “A place on the ground where one feels secure, a place from which one’s strengths of character is drawn”.