February 16, 2009 | The real thing that I am talking about has purity and a certain severity, rigor, simplicity, directness, clarity, and it is without artistic pretensions in a self-conscious sense of the word. That's the base of it-they're hard and firm.
Walker Evans, "Lyric Documentary," lecture at Yale, March 1, 1964, in Walker Evans at Work (1982)
Walker Evans regarded every photographic image as essentially a reference, a ratification, a philosophy of authentication that led him to begrudge the artiness that he so disliked in the work of Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen. Certainly, the "real" effect conveyed by his photographs predisposes the viewer toward a purely documentary interpretation of his work. As John Szarkwoski observed, his was "another kind of photography that was so plain and common, so free of personal handwriting, that it seemed almost the antithesis of art: the kind of photography that was seen in newspapers and newsreels, on picture postcards, and in the windows of real estate dealers." But Evans's greatness lay in accepting and acquiring the complete knowledge of the paradox of the photographic document: the image as an imprint of reality and as an article of aesthetic meditation.
Evans grew up in Chicago and attended Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, where he discovered literature and entertained the idea of becoming a writer himself. In 1926, after dropping out of Williams College, he enrolled at the Sorbonne in Paris and gravitated toward the novelist Gustave Flaubert as a literary master. Baudelaire and James Joyce completed the trinity of writers he most admired. He confessed himself Flaubert "by method" and Baudelaire "in spirit." Judging by his photographs, he no doubt remembered this advice from Flaubert: "An artist must be in his work like God in creation, invisible but all-powerful; he must be everywhere felt, but nowhere seen. Furthermore, Art must rise above personal emotions and nervous susceptibilities. It is time to endow it with pitiless method, with the exactness of the physical sciences."
Detail of Stables, Natchez, Mississippi by Walker Evans (1903-1975), March 1935. See p. 45, Fig. 10. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gilman Collection, purchase, Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation gift through Joyce and Robert Menschel.