Evans, Photography and Beaches

James R Mellor wrote the exhaustive biography of Walker Evans, a remarkable book (ISBN 046509077x) unfortunately not quite finished before Mellor’s death in 1997, and a book I recommend to all.  The final section of the final chapter that he completed is about the relationship between Evans and Frank and I think had he lived he would have explored more fully some of the questions this section raises.

In it, Mellor quotes (p553) from the wall label written by Evans for his nine pictures in a show containing work by him, Manuel Alvarez Bravo and August Sander presented by Edward Steichen at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, ‘Diogenes with a Camera III‘ in January 1956. (Other shows in this series of five from 1952-1961 included work by Edward Weston, Frederick Sommer, Harry Callahan, Eliot Porter, Gene Smith, Paul Strand, Shirley C Burden, Esther Bubley, Man Ray, Todd Webb, Tosh Matsumoto, Lucien Clergue, Yasuhiro Ishimoto…)

Diogenes was of course a seeker after truth who rejected social norms, lived on the streets in a barrel on a diet of onions and was the great cynic, debunking the values and institutions of his times. Certainly he was a very “minded” guy who made himself a “King of the Street” – and it was a few words with John Benton-Harris that set my mind wandering after a quotation from Walker Evans.

Tod Papageorge in his thought-provoking essay ‘Walker Evans and Robert Frank: An essay on Influence‘ written in 1981 (Yale University Art Gallery, ISBN 0894670158, text now available in The Missing Criticism series, which republishes out-of-print writing on photography) had earlier quoted this label in its entirety as a footnote on page 3:

“Valid photography, like humor, seems to be too serious a matter to talk about seriously. If, in a note, it can’t be defined weightily, what it is not can be stated with the utmost finality. It is not the image of Secretary Dulles descending from a plane. It is not cute cats, nor touchdowns, nor nudes; motherhood; arrangements of manufacturers’ products. Under no circumstances is it anything ever anywhere near a beach. In short it is not a lie – a cliché – somebody else’s idea. It is prime vision combined with quality of feeling, no less.”

(I was pleased I could still find my copy of Papageorge’s book – secondhand it now sells for around $2-400, and althoughit is good to see the text republished on the web,  without the images referred to by bracketed numbers throughout the text the reader has a certain amount of detective work to do. Mellor’s biography is a real bargain second-hand – unless you can find it locally you are likely to pay more for postage than the book – and there are many, many more pages to read.)

Perhaps “under no circumstances is it anything ever anywhere near a beach”  is worth bearing in mind for the holiday season (although of course it was aimed directly towards Edward Weston.)  When there are rather fewer (if any) posts from me over the coming few weeks at least you will know not to expect a deluge of beach images on my return.

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