Many Are Called

by Walker Evans, Luc Sante, James Agee and Jeff Rosenheim

Published by Yale University Press

280 pages, 2004


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Subway Secrets

Reviewed by Jennifer Thornton

 

It's the way to educate your eyes. Stare. Pry, listen eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long. -- Walker Evans

No one pried, stared or eavesdropped more justly or authoritatively than American photographer, Walker Evans. Evans died knowing more than we do because he looked closer -- his photographs are branded with a mission to capture the perfection within the imperfection.

The human condition, in all its complexity, falls quite willingly -- if not madly -- into the hands of the eager photographer. Photographers are near conspirators, muckraking with the eyes of eagles and the soft, careful tread of a ballerina squarely on her toes. America's cultural past owes much to her greatest shutterflies.

American photography has a storied past. From Mathew Brady's inconceivably evil photos of the Civil War to Dorothea Lange's grimacing images of a Depression-riddled America, photographers have helped create the country's historical consciousness.

While other photographers documented, Walker Evans defined. His photographs personified the still moments of a country on the move. Evans was a careful, steadfast angel on the shoulders of Steinbeck's Harvest Gypsies. His subjects were uniquely true, if not fantastically boring: a retiring barn, a field of wheat, a town on cinder blocks. But the deliberateness of his lens portrayed a world where our lives existed.

Evans was a biographer of slower times. His impact is felt in all artistic mediums: literature, film and the visual arts. Evans' enviable ability to capture the wrinkle of a waking eye, he is widely admired for his gift of spaciousness. His sparse lens captured what the eyes naturally diverted. A photographer whose aesthetic explored the complex psychologies of simple subjects, Walker stripped what was false about the American image and replaced it with what was impressive about its past.

Evans took his first photographs during a trip to Europe in the 1920s. The experimental photographs led to his publication and work as a photo essayist for Fortune Magazine. Evans quickly rose to prominence, marrying aesthetic with research, elevating documentary photography as an important cultural institution. It was his collaboration with writer James Agee that made Evans a prominent name in photography. On assignment for Fortune, Evans and Agee went deep into the South to chronicle the unforgiving lives of rural sharecroppers. The partnership led to the 1941 publication of Let Us Now Praise Men -- still considered as one of the most provocative literary works of the 20th Century. Evans' photographs complimented the wildly unrestrained prose of James Agee.

In between assignments for Fortune, Evans photographed many staples of American life: the Lindbergh Parade, Coney Island, longshoremen, pawn shops, diners and dirt roads. But it was another collaboration with Agee -- a personal pilgrimage -- that would consume Evans for three years and become a North Star in his photographic cannon.

In the winter of 1938, Evans, on a self-imposed assignment, anonymously took a seat on the subway and secretly photographed New Yorkers with a 35-millimeter Contax hidden beneath his coat. Evans hoped his "project of love" would one day become a book.

Published in 1966 to little fanfare, Many Are Called quickly disappeared to the shelves of rare book rooms and became a sought after but elusive treasure for book and photo collectors. High profile exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art and the J. Paul Getty Museum provoked new interest in Evans. The resurgence of his popularity sparked by the subway photographs led to a reissue of Evans' little book that could.

With an introduction written by Agee, Many Are Called proved that Evans was equally adept at photographing people as he was street signs. The New York subway suited Evans' gifts of concentration, temperament and artistic eye and provided him with copious amounts of inspiration. Photographing subjects of all imaginable background, Evans captured life at its essence. In the foreword of the book, Agee eloquently described the subjects: "Each is an individual existence, as matchless as a thumbprint or a snowflake." The voyeuristic project explored moments of the clarity, sorrow and the basic joys. Many Are Called depicts NYC's unknowing life-soldiers wrapped in their own mind.

Many Are Called is a sobering; even sad look at daily life in the city. The photographs represent something unique to the individual subject but universal to the urban dweller; the loneliness of the sometimes quiet mind and the futile search for anonymity inside the diverse citizenry of a metropolis. The most intriguing subjects are those unknowingly confessing to Evans' unseen camera; looking straight into the hidden lens deliberately exposing every detail of their human faces: joy, terror and melancholy. It is easy to see why Evans continued his study for three years. Indeed, there was much to discover. Judging by the photographs that he chose for the book, it is fair to assume that Evans was seeking to learn about human beings by living deeply within his subjects. The obvious curiosity that lurks deep inside the pages is what exists under the surface of the subjects; the thoughts, ideas, and psychologies. Evans makes us question but deliberately provides no answers.

The new edition of Many Are Called contains 90 images from newly produced digital scans. A foreword and afterword encapsulates the landmark book. Published in the centenary year of the New York City subway, the new edition is a gift to the American sensibility. | March 2005

 

Jennifer Thornton is a writer living in Sacramento. She has written articles, criticism and book reviews for Buzzine, AntiqueWest, and Route 66. She is the literary editor for Bella Online.