A Review of Walker Evans: Polaroids. Jeff L. Rosenheim, ed. Zürich: Scalo Verlag, 2001, 336 pp.
Superficially, this book of over 120 colour plates of Walker Evans' Polaroids could be categorised as a 'novelty' piece, much like the recent Ansel Adams in Color, (Harry Callaghan, ed). Adams' colour work, however, never represented much more than a curious footnote in the master craftsman's career; Adams' overwhelming importance is in how he brought breathtaking drama to his prints through his use of the zone system, and a refined, exacting, approach to the printing process.
Walker Evans, on the other hand, was almost the opposite of Adams in his approach to the finished photograph: His approach centered more on a refinement of composition, and of excising the non-essential and extraneous from his final prints. Yet, along with Adams, he shared a disdain for colour photography — both found it to be 'garish,' 'vulgar.'
However, this work — which represents the final chapter in Evans' artistic life — is a radical departure from his stated aversion to colour photography. The story is equally intriguing.
As Walker Evans approached 70, divorced and in failing health, it seemed that his creative days were behind him. He had produced some images since the mid 1960s, but it became increasingly difficult for him to have to schlep around his cumbersome view camera and tripod. Quite fortuitously, though, the Polaroid Corporation sent Evans its SX-70 auto-focus camera and an unlimited supply of film, hoping that the prestige of Evans' name would have help market its latest camera. Suddenly, Evans found his artistic 'second wind,' and began manically snapping up instant photographs with this simple camera he referred to affectionately as 'the toy.'
In the last two and-a-half years of his life, Evans would eventually take more than 2500 pictures with this camera. The photographs contained within are pure Walker Evans: Sometimes simple, sometimes complex, but always perfect compositions, always ruthlessly cropped within the camera. Evans commented about this camera "that nobody should touch a Polaroid until he's over sixty." Yet, viewing Evans' prints, which combines a colourful joie de vivre within the context of refined taste, it becomes obvious that anyone aspiring to the title of 'artist' or 'serious photographer' should not be permitted to advance to medium format or large format view cameras until he's mastered the art of composition with this seemingly innocuous 'toy.' Keep in mind that the photographs within are in the shape of a perfect square, a much more difficult canvas on which to let the compositional elements coalesce than the easy rectangle offered by 35mm cameras.
Many of the plates in Polaroids were first published in earlier volumes, such as Walker Evans: The Hungry Eye (1993) and the Metropolitan Museum of Art's 2000 retrospective, which along with this volume, was also edited by Rosenheim. The only drawback to this book, is that the photographs are printed 1:1 to the actual prints (just 3-1/8" square) and are somewhat darker than in the two previous volumes, obscuring some detail. Also, the colours have also faded since the two previous volumes' release, showing just how fragile the Polaroid medium is.
Nonetheless, this volume was worth every penny: There is such a serendipitous element of wry humour, even whimsy, that is both intimate and charming, and relate to the viewer Evans' essentially benevolent outlook on life, much of which had been brought back by this 'toy.'
Many of the photographs are purely abstract, but some are also literal in nature: Breaking down lettering in signage and from traffic markings, Evans attempted to collect a series of all the letters of the alphabet in idealised form. There are also some photos of signs that are witty puns (such as the 'IQ' isolated from a 'LIQUOR' sign) or double-entendre, such as the railway placard 'DO NOT HUMP.'
But best of all are his simple compositions of ordinary objects, such as a garden spade, a half-eaten blueberry pie, kitchen utensils, a mailbox, a dress-maker's mannequin and — of course — signs. Evans took deceptively prosaic objects, photographing them in an almost 'objective,' documentary manner, yet endowed them with his intelligent sense of selective observation. In his introduction, Rosenheim noted Evans' 1971 comment in relating Evans' aesthetic method: 'The secret of photography is, the camera takes on the character and the personality of the handler. The mind works on the machine — through it, rather.'
In his adolescence, Walker Evans dreamed of becoming an author, a literary man of letters. He found out, however, early-on that he was better-suited to photography. But in the twilight of his years, he left the world his final chapter in the story of his life, this collection of Polaroids. These delicate, sardonic and bittersweet images more than fulfill his early aspirations, for all their visual prose and poetry.