This is the final part of a series studying the writings of documentary photographers Gordon Parks and Walker Evans. It was gleaned from graduate research at the Missouri School of Journalism, University of Missouri at Columbia. It was also part of my presentation at the 30th VisCom Conference. Read parts one and two.
While Gordon Parks worked briefly for the Farm Security Administration, it was Walker Evans that helped bring to the American public a visualization of the Great Depression at the agency. His work for FSA, and in his collaboration with James Agee, Let Now Us Praise Famous Men, became synonymous with financial plight of Americans during the 1930s and early 40s; although more recently it was scrutinized a bit (Maharidge & Williamson, 2004). Lincoln Kirstein, an Evans collaborator in the 1930s who helped bring his “American Photographs” exhibition to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, was comparing Evans to the likes of documentary photography greats like Henri Cartier-Bresson and Eugene Atget, before the Great Depression had even ended.
“Walker Evans is giving us the contemporary civilization of eastern America and its dependencies as Atget gave us Paris before the war and as Brady gave us the War between the States” (Kirstein, 1938, p. 195). But Evans was more than a Depression-era or World War II-era photographer. He wrote short stories and poems, translated French literature and even wrote essays in the language (Mellow, 1999, Evans, 1926, et al). He penned articles for Fortune magazIne, grappled with writer’s block, and devoured literature. Kirstein called some of Evans’ photographs “poetry of contrast,” (Kirstein, 1938, p. 194), similar to his writings. Also during that same period, Kirstein compared Evans’ visual work to great poets and painters:
After looking at these pictures with all their clear, hideous and beautiful detail, their open insanity and pitiful grandeur, compare this vision of a continent as it is, not as it might be or as it was, with any other coherent vision that we have had since the war. What poet has said as much? What painter has shown as much? (195)
Evans garnered a love for literature at an early age. As an impressionable schoolboy, a schoolteacher started his habits. “I formed my literary taste because of a woman in Kenilworth, Illinois, who used to read to us” (Cummings, 1971).
Evans’ love of literature might have informed his photographic work. Until his 20s, he wanted to be a writer. It was not until then that he started using a camera regularly to create (Mellow, 1999). The Metropolitan Museum of Art hints that Evans’ love for literature and desire to write helped shape the images he captured with a camera. “The scope of Evans’ work and his ways of dealing with his subjects were born from a deep love of literature” and he was fascinated by Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, and T.S. Eliot (Hambourg, 2000, p. 8-9). He was also interested in D.H. Lawrence, Jack London, and Dostoevski (Rosenheim & Eklund, 2000). However his love for greats like Joyce hindered his confidence. “I wanted to write like that or not at all” (Evans, 1971).
Both Mellow and Hambourg argue his intense bouts with writer’s block and self-deprecation hurt many of his early writing attempts. He often complained of frustration that his work was not coming along as he had hoped. In a letter to friend, sometimes-roommate, and artist Hanns Skolle (1926), he derided his own talents and said he would be destroying his writing. Skolle wrote back with support: “I fear you made a deplorable mistake in destroying all your writing. Why incapacitate yourself? Especially when there is no immediate substance to take the place of the destroyed matter? Time enough for such radical decision later in the face of deeper, fuller, more complete creation” (Rosenheim & Eklund, 2000, p. 122). Not too long after that exchange, and even though Evans did continue to write, he increasingly turned to photography as an outlet to express and create.
Evans’ love of literature might have informed his photo work.
Two-Family Houses, From St. Michael's Graveyard, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Walker Evans, © Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Still, Evans poured great energy into his writings, and sometimes was quite proud of his written work, both before and after his dedication to photography. During a bustling production of short stories in the late 1920s and early 1930s, Evans could find no publisher, but saved drafts with care for future reflection (Rosenheim & Eklund, 2000, p. 49). For an introduction about author Agee to a reprint of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Evans wrote that his collaborator reminded him at first meeting of “a jumping, vociferating six-year-old boy. He whistled runs of Beethoven, ate double steaks, and drove the rented Chevrolet sedan demonically” (90). Evans often sought contrasts when writing, especially in criticisms or essays, and about Agee he also wrote, “He didn’t look much like a poet, an intellectual, an artist, or a Christian, each of which he was” (91). In that same anthology of Evans’ writings, there is an essay to support photographer Robert Frank when he was attempting to secure a fellowship to photography everyday people in America. He praised Frank’s ironic approach to the United States’ iconic way of life during the late 1950s. “Frank has responded to America with many tears, some hope, and his own brand of fascination, you can see in looking over the rest of his pictures, of people and roadside landscapes and urban cauldrons and of semi-divine, semi-satanic children” (89).
Evans’ stint at Fortune allowed him to combine his talents and become a regular published writer of nonfiction. He loved print and everything that went along with it: colors, text, and layouts (Campany, 2014). He published 400 photographs in more than 40 articles in the magazine (Rosenheim & Eklund, 2000, p. 105). Evans also took to creating the layouts and writing essays to go along with his pictures. “Evans combined his interest in words and pictures and created a multi-disciplinary narrative of unusually high quality. Classics of a neglected genre, these self-assigned picture and word essays were Evans’s métier for twenty years” (105).
Some of his essay topics were quirky, such as a look at the worker’s desk, or “Beauties of the Common Tool,” which included simple hand tools like wrenches, tin snips, crate openers, and a bricklayer’s pointing trowel. It was in these types of essays punchy hints to Evans’ writing styles emerged as he described rather mundane, inanimate objects. “Who would sully the lines of the tin-cutting shears on page 105 with a single added bend or whorl? Or clothe in any way the fine naked impression of heft and bite in the crescent wrench on page 107?” (Evans, 1955).
Both Gordon Parks and Walker Evans utilized writing to describe their world in ways that both reflected their photography, and expanded it. Parks and Evans both delved into literature, as well as non-fiction, and they often wrote about the stories they were photographing. While Evans had literary aspirations at a young age, he flourished as a photographer and later returned to words. He love print, and everything that went along with it, including writing and photography for his essays, like the ones found in Fortune.
Parks achieved photographic renown, then branched out to produce a novel, an autobiography, movies, music, and poetry; he was constantly seeking to reinvent himself. Many photographers, perhaps, could have also use writing to enhance their storytelling, but Parks and Evans seized the written word and used it to their advantage. They were storytellers and journalists, poets and lovers of literature. Their contributions to various avenues of writing deserves a closer look. It was difficult searching for times in their lives where they crossed paths and discussed writing. While both did work for Roy Stryker at FSA, in Mellow’s biography (1999), for instance, Parks is not even mentioned, which seems peculiar. Further research into whether the two ever corresponded, or even discussed literature together — or were acquaintances at all! — is needed. Additionally, new research that incorporates a textual analysis of their entire catalog of essays, poems, etc., could possibly inform future documentary photographers, journalists or even filmmakers, who not only are expected to create compelling visual images, but also written images, as digital media incorporates the two.
Many photographers, perhaps, could have also use writing to enhance their storytelling, but Parks and Evans seized the written word and used it to their advantage.
Floyd Burroughs, cotton sharecropper. Hale County, Alabama, 1935. Walker Evans, Melville House Books
Agee, J., & Evans, W. (1960). Let us now Praise Famous Men. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Campany, David. Walker Evans: The Magazine Work. Göttingen, Niedersachs: Steidl Göttingen, 2014. Print.
Carson, C. (2003). Reporting Civil Rights. New York: Library of America.
Gill, B. (1966). The Art of Seeing. The New Yorker. (December 24, 1966).
Evans, W. (1955). Beauties of the Common Tool. Fortune. (July 1955).
Evans, W. (1979). Walker Evans. Millerton, N.Y.: Aperture.
Evans, W., & Kirstein, L. (1988). American photographs. New York, N.Y.: Museum of Modern Art.
Evans, W., & Kirstein, L. (2012). American photographs. New York, NY: Museum of Modern Art.
Evans, W., & Hambourg, M. (2000). Walker Evans. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art in association with Princeton University Press, Princeton.
Evans, W., & Szarkowski, J. (1971). Walker Evans.
Evans, W. (1971) Interview by P. Cummings [Tape recording]. Oral history interview with Walker Evans, 1971, Oct. 13-Dec. 23. Archives of American Art. Smithsonian. Washington, D.C.
Evans, W., Hill, J., Liesbrock, H., Thompson, J., Trachtenberg, A., & Weski, T. (2015). Walker Evans: Depth of Field. New York: Prestel.
Maharidge, D., & Williamson, M. (2004). And their children after them. New York: Seven Stories Press.
Mellow, J. (1999). Walker Evans. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Parks, G. (1965). A Time For Martyrs. LIFE. (February 1965).
Parks, G. (1967). Whip of Black Power. LIFE. (May 1967)
Parks, G. (1968). A poet and his camera. New York: Viking Press.
Parks, G. (1975). Moments without proper names. London: Secker & Warburg.
Parks, G. (1990). Voices in the mirror. New York: Doubleday.
Reynolds, T. (2008). Publishing in '63: Looking for Relevance in a Changing Scene. Composition Studies, 36(1), 57-68.
Rosenheim, J., Eklund, D., Schwarzenbach, A., Hambourg, M., & Evans, W. (2000). Unclassified, a Walker Evans Anthology. Zürich: Scalo, in association with The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Roslansky, J., & Bronowski, J. (1970). Creativity (pp. 81-90). Amsterdam: North-Holland Pub. Co.
Tebbel, J. & Zuckerman, M. (1991). The magazine in America, 1741-1990 (p. 166). New York: Oxford University Press.
Tidwell, J. E. (2013). The Hard Kind of Courage: Labor and Art in Selected Works by Langston Hughes, Gordon Parks, and Frank Marshall Davis. Kansas History, 36(3), 158-171.
Unger, A. (1988). Gordon Parks documentary displays his many talents. The Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved 27 November 2015, from http://www.csmonitor.com/1988/0224/lgord.html