The Walker Evans photographs that I like best are the ones I think of as spirit pictures, photographs of ghosts, a little like those Victorian photos in which the ectoplasmic residue of the dead hovers, threateningly or comfortingly, in the frame with the grieving beloved. Evans’s photos of objects and buildings often seem like photos of the people who built or created or use theose obkects and places, the people just aren’t there. The church pews and the organ, the barsbershop, a barn wall, a storefront reminds us, seeing them through his lens, that someone designed and painted them, someone hammered those nails. The abandoned ballroom in the Alabama mansion is crowded with dancing ghosts, their images picked up during the long exposure when Evans went and had lunch and coffee and kept the shutter open.
Certainly someone, or several people, are present in “Kitchen Wall, Alabama Farmstead 1936. Young or old, we can’t say, though we might hope the farmer will live long enough to have more things to eat with. Male or female? Who knows? Likewise black or white isn’t clear? Rich or poor? We know that? We also know that the person, the one in, and not in, the photograph, has a remarkable talent for domestic organization.
Every family should have someone like that. We do, but it isn’t me. My husband, the one who has it, says that whoever designed the kitchen wall was doing the most utilitatarian thing with the cutlery and plate and so forth and also designing an altar. He says that many of the interiors Evans photographed seem like bunches of stuff but when you look more closely they altars designed for protection.
Perhaps this is the moment to say that, however deeply I admire Evans’s work, I am never sure I like it as much as I should, not do I have any idea why this should be. He took many beautiful pictures that I come back to again and again. In Chronology, the remarkable collection of Diane Arbus’s writings, she describes a going to a show of Evans and knowing it’s wrong to blame Evans for not being Brassai—a characteristically brilliant observation that at once sums up the problem and the absurdity of the problem.
When I mentioned my reservations to a photographer friend, she suggested I read a memoir, Walker’s Way, by his last, much younger wife, Isabelle Storey. Not long ago, when Newt Gingrich’s former wife came forward with certain unpleasant truths, a several-times married friend remarked that, as much as he believed her, it was often a mistake to accept unquestioningly the ex-wife’s side of the story.
So I’ll skip the more troubling parts and mention rather more mild and to my mind entirely credible incident that occurred on holiday in Palm Beach, where it came to Evans’s attention that the Duke and Duchess of Windsor were staying at the same hotel. He kept his wife at dinner for hours until the royal couple appeared, and later danced near them in an ecstasy of competition because his own wife was so much younger and prettier than the duchess. That night after the Evanses went to bed he was apparently more generous to his wife than he had been in the past.
Is “Kitchen Wall, Alabama Farmstead, 1936” a picture of a kitchen wall taken by a man who would rather have been dining with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor? Should this affect how we see the photo? Is it something we sense? Myself, I don’t believe that we need to like, or approve of, an artist in order to admire and even love the art. But is that also as true of photographers, who can so easily persuade us that the world we are seeing through their eyes is the way the world is?
I don’t think these questions have answers, which again brings me back to something Arbus said in an astonishing slide show in which she can be heard, on audiotape, commenting on photos she ripped out from newspapers and others she took herself. The last thing we see in the slide show is her amazing image of the giant Eddie Carmel towering above his parents. On the tape Arbus says she always had the feeling that if she didn’t take these photographs, no one would ever see these things. Obviously the same can be said of “Kitchen Wall, Alabama Farmstead, 1936.” How can we not be grateful: If Walker Evans hadn’t been there and noticed and preserved it on film, there is no way that we would never know that it existed.
Francine Prose is the author of many bestselling books of fiction, including A Changed Man and Blue Angel, which was a finalist for the National Book Award, and the nonfiction New York Times bestseller Reading Like a Writer. Her novel, Household Saints, was adapted for a movie by Nancy Savoca. Another novel, The Glorious Ones, has been adapted into a musical of the same name by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, which ran at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre at Lincoln Center in New York City in the Fall of 2007. Her latest novel, My New American Life, was published in 2011. She is the president of the PEN American Center and lives in New York City.