Light Readings

By Nick Stewart

only-walker-evans-polaroids.jpgOld Saybrook, Connecticut, 1973

The late polaroids of photographer Walker Evans hold intriguing lessons for the moving image

It’s not that long ago that the Polaroid camera was at the height of technological innovation, yet today, although still admired and popular, it has largely been superseded by digital media. However, two recent publications have credited this technology with a somewhat more elevated status. Instant Light, a sumptuous hardback edition of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Polaroids published last year, revealed a medium capable of producing images as convincing as any from that director’s films. But before that, published in 2002, an equally beautiful edition, cataloguing Walker Evans’ involvement with the same camera during the final year and a half of his life, presented a body of work that could easily stand its ground in any photographic context.

There is a certain poignancy in the fact that Evans found his new ‘toy’ in 1973, just 14 months before his death at the age of 71 after a career that, beginning in New York back in 1928, had spanned some 45 years. He was by then alone, without a family, having recently experienced his second divorce. He had also suffered a major illness and hospitalisation and was well aware of how little time he had left. Given his health problems portability became an increasingly important concern. He’d often used a small camera in his earlier work and he was also interested in ‘new kinds of observation’ facilitated by technological innovation. The recently developed Polaroid SX-70 camera perfectly combined the necessary economies of scale and handling. Its reductive technology abstracted and transformed reality in images whose shortcomings were as much a gift to the artist as they were a problem to be overcome.

house-walker-evans-polaroids.jpgOld Saybrook, Connecticut, Dec 6, 1973

The year 1973 also marked, more or less, the end of sixties idealism. America was a traumatised country, brought to its knees by the Vietnam War and the internal crises prompted by the civil rights and student protest movements. This was also a time when the threat of nuclear annihilation was just minutes away. Something of that introspective, downbeat atmosphere was perfectly captured in the images Evans recorded on his shiny new Polaroid. An air of abandonment and loss infuses most of them. In the parking lots and darkening streets, and around the gardens and porches of the houses that were the sources for much of this work, no people are evident. It is an abandoned and lonely world that Evans inhabits, one that derives as much from dreams as from the social reality that had been so central to his earlier work.

When people are recorded, they appear as if in shock from some unseen catastrophe, caught in the dull flash of the camera, their attention only momentarily engaged. The fragility of this Polaroid aesthetic is easily demonstrated by the fact that in some catalogues on his work these images have been ‘sexed up’, enlarged and reprinted in black and white and given a preciousness that is undoubtedly far removed from the immediacy and throwaway quality that Evans so relished. The charm and interest of the originals is completely erased by this process.  

It is common knowledge that Evans was a scavenger of the streets, interested mostly in the ‘neglected traditions of the common man.’ From the late 1930s he was surreptitiously photographing people on the New York subway with a camera hidden in his coat. He was also more than a little fascinated by the painted and neon signs of the burgeoning post war American economy. By 1971 these signs had become an obsession. He often took them from sites where he photographed them: took them home to re-photograph them. He even exhibited both the sign object and its photo in a way that perhaps derived from the conceptual art movement that was at its height at that time.

enjoy-walker-evans-polaroids.jpgYard Sign,1973-1974

In this book, his interest in them divides in two main categories. Firstly, there are signs photographed for their content, and perhaps, their surreal presence in the urban landscape. Many of these advertise fast food. Most have seen better days. Secondly, there are a large number of images of signs that owe more to American painting in the post-war period than to photography per se. These close ups of road markings and other hand painted advertisements offer precise reframings that bear an uncanny resemblance to the works of the big names in American painting of the 1950s and 60s. In fact, shown these images outside of the context of Evans’ work, you might well mistake them for documentation of paintings or the source images for paintings.

When asked once which camera he’d used, Evans replied that the tool mattered little. An observation that seems almost shocking in today’s world, where the shelves in photography bookshops groan under the weight of a myriad of publications, their pages charting every imaginable aspect of life in high resolution, high gloss, pornographic detail. His casualness with the Polaroid medium even extended to him giving his images away, something any ambitious young artist with an eye for commercial success in the twenty first century globalised art commodities market might seriously think twice about.

But we should not imagine that he took any less care with this work than with his better known images. Rather, his attitude perfectly illustrates that art is little to do with technology and tools and everything to do with the consciousness and experience of the artist using them. Evans himself reflected on this when he said, ‘...nobody should touch a Polaroid until he‘s over sixty.’

Walker Evans: Polaroids, edited by Jeff L Rosenheim, and from where these images are taken, is published by Scalo.

Nick Stewart is a filmmaker.