The Missing Criticism: Papageorge on Evans and Frank
In 1981, Tod Papageorge curated an exhibit at the Yale University Art Gallery that explored the influence of Walker Evans' American Photographs on Robert Frank's The Americans. The catalog for the show is out-of-print, taking with it Papageorge's essay "Walker Evans and Robert Frank: An Essay on Influence."
That makes it an ideal candidate to inaugurate a new series, Photography: The Missing Criticism, which aims to bring great writing on photography back into print.
Download the essay here (PDF).
Papageorge's essay is an inspired reading of Frank's indebtedness to Evans, "a debt so profound that . . . we can observe not only the influence, but the way in which a brilliant young photographer embraced and comprehended a masterpiece."
Frank has always been upfront about Evans' influence on his work but, as Papageorge writes, that acknowledgment has mostly been ignored:
Although, since The Americans was published, Frank has consistently stated that Walker Evans . . . was the photographer who most influenced his work, the few writers who have discussed the two men in relation to one another generally have done so by setting them in a Manichaean opposition. In this equation, Evans, on the side of the angels, is seen as a moralist whose work unequivocally accepts and elevates the raw material of vernacular American culture, while Frank, in the devil's party, is seen as the photographic equivalent of Rimbaud — an anarchic poet who sings one brutal song, and then, in despair and exaltation, or whatever joy is found in conjunction with the creation of something incomparable, denies his gift by rejecting it. That the sorrowing world Frank's book describes has been set against Evans' lightstruck community, where, in at least a casual reading, everything possesses the clear gorgeousness of achieved fact, is unsurprising. But the suggestion that the two photographers are related only because they share the same general subject ignores the particular debt that The Americans owes to American Photographs, and, with that, disregards the most subtle triumphs of Frank's book, its transformation of Evans' vision.
Papageorge has been the director of Graduate Study in Photography at the Yale School of Art since 1979. A book of his work, Passing Through Eden: Photographs of Central Park, was published this year by Steidl. In October, Aperture will publish his book American Sports, 1970: Or How We Spent the War in Vietnam.
Caveat: The essay includes references to page numbers of particular photographs by Evans and Frank that appeared in the catalog; however, no photographs are included in this PDF.
Susan Sontag had a different take on the relationship between these two artists:
"As Walt Whitman gazed down the democratic vistas of culture, he tried to see beyond the difference between beauty and ugliness, importance and triviality.
"The epigraph for a book of Walter Evans's photographs published by MOMA is a passage from Whitman that sounds the theme of American photography's most prestigious quest: 'I do not doubt but the majesty & beauty of the world are latent in any iota of the world...I do not doubt that there is far more in trivialities, insects, vulgar persons, slaves, dwarfs, weeds, rejected refuse, than I have supposed.'
"Whitman thought that he was not abolishing beauty but generalizing it. So, for generations, did the most gifted American photographers, in their polemical pursuit of the trivial and vulgar. But among American photographers who have matured since World War II, the Whitmanesque mandate...has gone sour.
"American photography has moved from affirmation to erosion to, finally, a parody of Whitman's program. In this history the most edifying figure is Walker Evans. He was the last great photographer to work seriously and assuredly in a mood deriving from Whitman's euphoric humanism.
"Evans' project still descends from Whitman's: the leveling of discriminations between the beautiful and the ugly, the important and the trivial...but this was a leveling up, not down.
"Succeeding the more buoyant hopes for America has come a bitter, sad embrace of experience. There is a particular melancholy in the American photographic project...photographers with less ego and magnetism than Stieglitz gradually gave up the struggle...what they documented was discontinuity, detritus, loneliness, greed, sterility. Stieglitz, using photography to challenge the materialist civilization, was, in Rosenfeld's words, 'the man who believed that a spiritual America existed somewhere, that America was not the grave of the Occident.' The implicit intent of Frank and Arbus, and of many of their contemporaries and juniors, is to show that America is the grave of the Occident.
"Since photography cut loose from the Whitmanesque affirmation...what we have left of Whitman's discredited dream of cultural revolution are paper ghosts and a sharp eyed witty program of despair."
Susan Sontag: America, Seen Through Photographs, Darkly. (Chapter 2 of On Photography)
Posted by: Allan Nadel at August 12, 2007 03:22 AM