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Friday, June 22, 2012

Walker Evans

Walker Evans, 1937
A screwdriver is pretty much good for only one thing--driving screws. Okay, painters use it for prying lids off paint cans but that don't count. Hammers are for driving nails in or pulling them out. Unless, again, you're a painter, in which case they're for pounding lids back onto paint cans. The whole point of this is that most tools are designed for very limited usage, specializing in maybe one or two jobs...unless you're a painter of course. But one or two inventions of man have such broad usages we hardly even think of them as tools. One is languages. They come in two forms, written and spoken. The scientist uses this tool just as does a poet or ditch digger. But what each makes with this tool is vastly different. Its versatility in all its manifestation is second to none.

Reedsville, West Virginia, 1836, Walker Evans
And likewise, the artist's tools are second to none other than language in their versatility. Sometimes I think there may be just as many of them too. And the things we create using these tools are as vastly different visually as the auditory sounds which come from our use of words. We could demonstrate this in any number of different art media. Take photography for instance. The same camera can catch a baby's first smile, a used car dealer's fake smile, or a felon's mug shot. In so doing, it can document the way we live. Photographers have been doing this almost since the first Daguerreotype, though mostly by accident. However during the 1930s, the Farm Security Administration chose to do it by intent. And one of the first of their photographic artists to do so was Walker Evans.
Joe's Auto Graveyard Near Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, 1936, Walker Evans

While others in the FSA's small corps of documentary photographers sought to capture the faces of the Depression, Walker's works tend toward the things that demonstrated just as forcefully the blighted times in which he lived. His Joe's Auto Graveyard, Near Bethlehem, Pennsylvania from 1936 is one such photo. It's a landscape cluttered with discarded Model A's and Model T's. Today such a place would be a classic car buff's Garden of Eden. But 76 years ago, it was an eyesore which Walker turned into a work of art and a startling comment on what was wrong with America at the time. Later, Walker turned his fascination with cars into an important thread in his art, and again, was perhaps the first to see the automobile as capable of making an important statement as to who we are (or were) as a nation.

Bicycle, Robert Rauchenberg--Walker on a
It's an interesting irony, that in so many areas, it took a photographer to show painters and other artists that items they took for granted, using unthinkingly in their daily lives, were, in fact, creative vehicles (and not just the automobile) capable of making profound artistic comments as subject matter for their widely divergent creative endeavors. Walker's work can be seen as a starting point exerting influence upon artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Frank, and Lee Friedlander. It should make us ponder items we see and use daily as fodder for our own work.

American, Robert Frank, breaking the rules
Lee Friedlander, Walker with contrasts.

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