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Thursday, February 25, 2010

Walker Evans' Subway Photographs

Walker Evans, Subway Portrait: Sixteen Women, New York, USA, 1938-41.
Above: Walker Evans, Subway Portrait: Sixteen Women, New York, 1938-41, assembled 1959.

[Walker Evans intuited] the affinity between the modern artist and the secret agent – both of them intrepid observers and recorders, purveyors of inside information and coded messages, peripatetic voyeurs who embrace alienation as an occupational hazard.Mia Fineman

I’m not interested in people in the portrait sense, in the individual sense. I’m interested in people as part of the pictures and as themselves, but anonymous.
Walker Evans

Between 1938 and 1941, Walker Evans took photographs on the New York subway, using a concealed (and presumably pre-set) 35mm camera operated by a remote control cable. Evans’ career as a whole, and the subway photographs in particular, may be seen as an attempt to appropriate the rhetoric of official, institutional photography – the police mug shot and so on – and apply it to other ends. In his subway project, Evans was trying to produce anonymous portraits, the complete antithesis of the celebrity glamour shots he dismissed as mere photographic name-dropping. [1] The resulting images are often praised for their intensity or psychological acuteness. Evans himself claimed that they show the subjects in naked repose, when the guard is down and the mask is off. [2]

I would argue that they actually create the opposite impression. Evans' subjects are trying to erase any expression of individuality to reduce their vulnerability to the gaze of strangers (strangers like Evans). As a result, the pictures are highly repetitive - dare I say that they are actually quite boring - precisely because everyone is equalized within them. There are no tell-tale gestures, and no conversations. In short, no-one is actively communicating with anyone else, least of all with Evans. Everyone is in the same null state.

Far from seeking to demonstrate his empathy with or understanding of his subjects, Evans wanted to prove that the camera can be made not to think and not to translate its operator’s emotion, and he described his purpose as follows.

I would like to be able to state flatly that sixty-two people came unconsciously into range before an impersonal fixed recording machine during a certain time period, and that all these individuals who came into the film frame were photographed, and photographed without any human selection for the moment of lens exposure. [3]

By using an absolutely minimal technique, in which he limited himself to photographing whoever happened to be sitting opposite him, he tried to render himself anonymous along with his subjects. In this project, the purpose of photography was not self-expression, but self-denial.

It might seem that Evans was attempting to attain the state of mind and technique of the ideal spy, but if so, then the ideal in question is a modern one. It was not, for example, that of Gerolamo Vano or his seventeenth-century Venetian masters, who did not associate objectivity with machines (or indeed with science). [4] For them, the judgement of God was the model of objectivity, which meant that truth was rooted in a consciously directed and morally-informed gaze. In the law courts too, truth was closely associated with presence, with a rational consciousness, since conviction depended largely on eyewitness testimony. It is only very recently that forensic evidence (interpreted by expert witnesses who have no direct knowledge of the crime) has begun to displace such testimony. Similarly, the information provided by Vano always depended on the physical presence of an informant.

Photography as it is usually practiced has more in common with this older conception than Evans’ comments might imply. It is well known that the authority of a photograph comes from the fact that its subject must be present in front of the camera at the moment of exposure. What is less frequently acknowledged is that, in most cases, the fact that the photographer was physically present to press the shutter is also critical: not only, ‘This happened’, but ‘I was there when it did’. The photograph is the result of an act of perception (even if it involves a transformation of that act). Even more importantly, it is the result of a choice.

The impersonal ideal that Evans was apparently reaching for has apparently been fulfilled with the invention of the closed-circuit television camera and/or digital webcam. Because this machine records (or transmits) continuously, without interruption and hence without the need for choice, it eliminates the need for human intervention beyond its initial activation. But I imagine Evans’ goal was less to obtain a purely mechanical image than to reduce himself to a machine: not to eliminate consciousness but to transform it.
Unlike Evans, I believe in the necessity of composition, of placing figures intelligently within the frame, and thereby defining my relationship to them, however minimal and controlled that relationship may be. To reject composition is to avoid the responsibilities that come with choice, and with one’s status as a moral agent.

Not only, ‘This happened’, but ‘I was there when it did’.

[1] Quoted in Mia Fineman, ‘Notes from Underground: The Subway Portraits’, in M. M. Hamburg, J. L. Rosenheim, D. Ekland and M. Fineman, Walker Evans, 2000, p. 108. There are various redactions of the subway pictures. The early versions severely crop the negatives to show only the head and shoulders of the subject; the later ones include more of the extraneous detail around them, a change that probably shows the influence of younger photographers like Robert Frank upon Evans.

[2] Quoted in Walker Evans at Work: 745 Photographs together with Documents Selected from Letters, Memoranda, Interviews, Notes. With an Essay by Jerry L. Thompson, 1982, p. 152. James Agee made the same claim in his introduction to the book version of the subway pictures.

[3] Both quotations from an unused preface to Evans’ published collection of the subway photographs, reproduced in ibid., p. 160. This manifesto recalls Walter Benjamin’s claim that Photography prepares the salutory movement by which man and his surrounding world become strangers to each other … opening up the clear field where all intimacy yields to the clarification of details.

[4] However, the Italian word for ‘lens’ is the same as the adjective ‘objective’ [obiettivo] and in the early seventeenth century, Galileo’s discoveries in astronomy depended on recent improvements in the optics of the telescope, which he helped bring about in co-operation with Venetian glassmakers. The ‘realism’ of seventeenth-century painting also depended partly on the use of the camera oscura, as David Hockney has recently argued.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Pistols! Treason! Murder!: Review from Library Journal

The following is extracted from Library Journal, January 15 2010:

Strip away the whiz bangs here—comic-strip sequences, chapters in which the author and friends meet in cafés to talk over their obsession with the past, time-sequence photographs of a flintlock firing—and this is first-rate history, just of a different kind. The flashy stuff works here, with an effect similar to that of Michael Lesy's groundbreaking 1973 Wisconsin Death Trip, where Lesy's pictorial editing forced the reader to look at events a second time, catching nuances that might otherwise have been missed. Walker (research fellow, Univ. of Sydney) describes an incident of spying in 1622 Venice. A master spy, Gerolamo Vano, presents evidence that leads to a Venetian nobleman's hanging on charges of espionage. Five months later, Vano himself is executed for falsifying evidence, and the nobleman is absolved posthumously. But this book isn't just about Vano, about whose machinations the evidence is spotty. It's as much or more a reflection on how one approaches the historical record: how to exhume a coherent narrative from uneven, desultory, and usually self-serving reports. VERDICT This book will infuriate as many scholars as it excites, but it is original, well written, and good. It should intrigue anyone who likes reading history.—David Keymer, Modesto, CA

Friday, February 5, 2010

Pistols! Treason! Murder!: The Illustrations


Above is a slide show of selected illustrations from my first book, Pistols! Treason! Murder! These illustrations were a late addition to the manuscript. They were created by Dan Hallett, in a rush at the end of 2005, concurrently with my final edits on the text. At this point, our collaboration was still rather haphazard, and my instructions to Dan consisted primarily of scribbled notes and doodles on the backs of hundreds of pages photocopied from early modern source books.

Dan and I had first met in Cambridge in 2001, and we had worked together there to create four sample comic strip pages as an experiment. Subsequently, I had moved to Australia and Dan had moved to Spain, so when my editor at Melbourne University Press, Elisa Berg, asked if we could add more illustrations like the sample pages, I said yes, without actually being sure what that would entail.

In the event, Dan and I were able to renew our collaboration entirely by e-mail, and in a much more effective way than before, resulting not only in a new set of illustrations, all in the style of seventeenth-century woodcuts, but subsequently in an even more ambitious project: that is, our illuminated novel, Five Wounds (on which, more anon).

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Pistols! Treason! Murder! at Rorotoko

This week, Pistols! Treason! Murder! is one of the featured books at Rorotoko, an online discussion venue. My article for Rorotoko can be found here. Below is a short extract, which explains one of the illustrations in the book.

The Wounds of Giulio Cazzari

Above: The Wounds of Giulio Cazzari, created by Dan Hallett.

This illustration accompanies the title chapter of Pistols! Treason! Murder! It depicts in allegorical form the assassination of Giulio Cazzari, one of Vano’s numerous victims.

Vano’s costume here is taken in part from that of the figure of “The Spy” in
Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia, a ubiquitous visual source book of the period. Note the cloak of eyes and ears, and the winged boots of Hermes, messenger of the gods, who was also patron of “revelation, commerce, communication and thieving” (Vano’s activities fell under all four categories).

The cup is filled with ink, but obviously alludes to the Holy Grail, while the imagery as a whole also suggests the iconography of the wounds and sacred heart of Christ. However, in the context of the book, there is a more explicit reference to a passage from an earlier chapter, “Idiolect,” in which Vano’s words, read aloud, “taste like red wine—or, to be more precise, bad red wine: acidic, furring the tongue, lips and teeth; intoxicating, yet also prone to induce sore eyes and jabbing headaches. The more of them you speak, the more they numb the mouth and brain, and induce slurring.”

Intoxication as a response to Vano’s words is a recurrent theme in the book, underlined elsewhere by another image in which I am shown drinking from the same cup into which Vano dips his pen here.

In the image above, intoxication is further associated with a kind of knowledge based on vicarious participation in historical events through exemplary re-enactment, that is with the stigmata, and with holy communion, in which a Christian devotee respectively receives the wounds of Christ, or ingests the blood of Christ. But here the sacred meaning is violently profaned. The secular grail that Vano holds aloft is therefore the elusive, unattainable goal of every historian’s quest: direct, unmediated access to the past.

Finally, the disassembled corpse of Giulio Cazzari, the victim whose remains lie within the heart at the image’s apex, also alludes to the fragmentary nature of the sources recounting his death, which cannot be stitched together into a single, coherent narrative.

To be absolutely clear, this image makes no claim to be a literal depiction of anything. Although it is composed of elements adapted from early modern sources, I have no idea what Vano or Cazzari looked like or wore. And while Cazzari certainly was assassinated as a result of Vano’s reports on his activities, his dead body was not in fact dismembered. This image is therefore a kind of diagram, one mapping arguments and elaborating subtexts rather than describing events.

None of the ideas outlined in the discussion above are expressed directly in the text of the book. Such explanation would be redundant: the argument is all there in the illustration itself, and in its implied relation to other elements of the presentation, both visual and linguistic. So another of my arguments is, in effect, that we should take images seriously as independent vehicles for complex and abstract ideas.

[There will be more on the illustrations for Pistols! Treason! Murder! in future posts ...]

Monday, February 1, 2010

Pistols! Treason! Murder!: Judges' Comments for the 2008 Victorian Premier's Literary Awards

The following is not very topical, but I'm posting it here as a form of indexing. In 2008, the Australian edition of Pistols! Treason! Murder! was shortlisted for The Prize for a First Book of History in the Victorian Premier's Literary Awards. Below is the judges' report:

Pistols! Treason! Murder!
Jonathan Walker
(Melbourne University Publishing)

This deeply satisfying book takes readers into the world of seventeenth-century Venetian master spy, Gerolamo Vano. In the process, Jonathan Walker reveals how he creatively made history, out of a newly discovered and fragmentary archive in the form of Vano’s surveillance reports. Closely reading these documents, Walker constructs a spell-binding tale of people and place, in a book that reflects on the practice of history-making and poses large questions about the compact between historians and their readers, and what counts as a trustworthy version of a past.