On The Road – The Post Office at Sprott, Alabama
‘Not ideas about the thing, but the thing itself.’ Wallace Stephens
‘A motion and a spirit, that impels/All thinking things, all objects of all thought’ William Wordsworth
It is said by serious lovers of jazz that, if you do not care for the singing of Billie Holiday, then jazz, or at least, jazz singing, is not for you. A sweeping contention, maybe, but the inference is unerringly clear to other enthusiasts who have engaged that music seriously. Billie Holiday is a touchstone. In her art she demonstrates, perhaps more than anyone else, the essence of jazz singing. Billie Holiday is, in short, the jazz singer’s jazz singer. Her only serious rival for that title was Sarah Vaughn.
Now such a label, and the suggestion that one might not, yet one ought to care for Billie’s singing, implies a degree of difficulty surrounding her art. Billie Holiday might be the jazz singer’s jazz singer, but the popular champion, Joe Public’s idea of a jazz singer, is undoubtedly Ella Fitzgerald.
There surely seems a whiff of snobbery here on the part of the aficionado here, as there tends to be with aficionados, the implication that Ella is too popular to be profound, or that she compromised her talent – all those Norman Granz ‘Songbook’ albums with strings – to court popularity. However, there is little doubt that Ella retains the respect of jazz lovers, even the diehard Holiday devotees – she remains a great singer, even if the most snobbish might call her a ‘jazz based’ rather than a true jazz singing. The snobbery of some fans knows no bounds.
Yet what is implicit in this idea of difficulty with regard to Billie Holiday is the notion of fundamentalism, of an art that has absolutely no frills attached, an art that is puritanically austere, severe, pared of inessentials. In Holiday, the essence of the jazz spirit – plain music for plain poor folks in its origins – was contained in a cool, urbane, outwardly sophisticated, but palpably brittle shell. Her music was jazz in a fundamental and unadulterated form, which inevitably proved to be too astringent, too unpalatable for general tastes. The singing of Billie Holiday is decidedly dry rather than sweet.
Some of the same sentiments may be expressed, I believe, about Walker Evans within the context of the photographic medium. If you cannot appreciate his art to the full, you are missing the point abut the art of photography. Again, this is probably a gross simplification, not to say a wild overstatement. However, Evans is certainly a photographer’s photographer in the way that Bill Brandt or Ansel Adams are people’s photographers. Like his great French confrere, Eugène Atget, Evans has proved to be a little too dry for many. For in his art – as in Atget’s – the fundamental precepts of camera vision are laid bare in a rigorous and uncompromising way, embodying a starkness that some still regard as precluding true creative expression. Alan Trachtenberg said that Evans is the photographer who introduced ‘difficulty’ into photography. For Trachtenberg it was a virtue, but for others it was a puzzle.
And as Evans’ patron, Lincoln Kirstein wrote in his great Afterword to American Photographs (1938), the book where Evans’ ‘difficulty’ was first made manifest. He wrote of his friend’s photographs that:
‘They demand and should receive the slight flattery of your close attention. They are not entirely easy to look at. They repel an easy glance. They are so full of facts they have to be inspected with more care than quickness.
But do that and they bring their reward:
‘The physiognomy of a nation is laid on your table.’
The method of both Holiday and Evans was one of apparent simplicity, but like much art of authentic, and not fake simplicity, its artlessness concealed intense and profound levels of expression and of intelligence. Billie Holiday at her finest could take a banal and insignificant popular song – like the pretty dreadful, I’m Painting the Town to Hid a Heart That’s Blue – and with a maximum economy of means. A subtle inflection of rhythm or timbre here, a twisting of the lyrics there, and above all, an impeccable sense of timing, would turn musical dross into gold. Walker Evans at his keenest would take a fragment of ephemeral, disregard Americana – a windowful of standardised, anonymous snapshots, a severely utilitarian, ugly corrugated tin shed, a clapboard post office – and by means of that nominally simple act, clicking the shutter, would creative something rich and inexhaustibly interesting, a meditation upon history and a work of art.
The scene reproduced here would seem to be a familiar one. It is a commonplace sight, characteristic of the rural southern states of America. And even if we have not visited the United States, it is ‘known’, perfectly unexotic and culturally assimilated, from the mass media. We have seen it, or rather its near relative many times, a typical setting for innumerable quasi-Western, hillbilly, Southern Gothic, or smalltown melodramas which have flickered across our television or movie screens and lodged themselves within our cultural memory. Bonnie and Clyde, or The Last Picture Show, are two renowned movie examples from the late 1960s – a time when, interestingly, Evans’ work was becoming known to a much broader constituency than hitherto.
Such a scene then, as the Post Office at Sprott, Alabama, and countless others like it, is lodged somewhere inside our cultural subconscious, perhaps near the surface for some, and deep within for others. But when we first encounter that photograph by Walker Evans, our subconscious unlocks the appropriate cells of association and enables to make our response. Filed under ‘architecture/ North American/ vernacular.’ If we have even a passing acquaintance with the past twenty-five years of art photography, we would have seen countless other versions of Evans’ image, all the way from Lee Friedlander, Stephen Shore, and William Eggleston to the latest first year photography course intake.
When we look at this image, therefore, we automatically assume that we have seen this picture, and know it. But if we take a moment or two, and do more than simply glance at it, we might realise – even if we have been there – that we haven’t really seen, or experienced it at all.
For Walker Evans is one of the relatively few, infinitely precious photographers who deal us, gently but firmly, what Edward Weston called ‘the shock of recognition.’ This is the currency of the great photograph, that exquisite feeling when we realise, with a suddenness almost sharp enough to demand a catching of the breath, that Evans has ‘seen’, and that he has enabled us to ‘see’, to apparently renew our seeing of a small part of the world with the pure, unblinking gaze of a child. Such a feeling, a visual frisson brought into being by the talents of a master photographer such as Evans, was described most aptly by Tod Papageorge when he wrote:
‘This is not the rapture of transport, or transcendence, but that more footed joy and grief found near any clear sighting of the world.’
Evans has pinned down the reality of that architecturally absurd, but wonderful little post office in Alabama as clearly and as precisely as one would pin a butterfly to a board. But the photographer has done so much more than the would-be lepidopterist: he has pinned down so much more than a beautiful, yet lifeless and empty shell. Evans has conjured up an experience of life, surely the goal of all realist art. He has created an almost indefinable, yet well nigh perfect surrogate of his own penetrating perceptual relationship with a humble fragment of America. He pinned down not only his experience of sight, of spatial and physical awareness, but, we may even fancy – of touch and sound and smell.
There are some pictures, most of them, though not all in the realist mode, into which one is invited to bury oneself., or at least venture into for a brief contemplative sojourn. This is true of many Evans images. Here, we are compelled to imagine the feel of that dusty track upon the soles of our feet. We may even taste the dust upon our lips and in our nostrils, and blink at the intensity of the light’s glare. We may feel the heat of the sun upon our faces, and hear the buzz of a thousand crickets. We are beckoned, drawn on down that road, past that enigmatic tree shadow (literally the only shadow cast upon the picture’s elegiac mood). We are drawn past that amazing building, and on into the hot, hedgerowed distance. The whole picture radiates with an almost palpable rapture the experience of a long, perspiring, somnolent day in the Deepest South.
But what of the nominal subject of the image, that unlikely little post office? Where, as well as sending our mail, we can buy our ticket for the greyhound bus-line, a sign informs us. Where we may also fill up with Pan-Am gasoline, or grab the Coke for which we’ve been gasping. Or buy our Old Gold cigarettes and obtain our indispensable Arcadian – ‘The AMERICAN Nitrate of Soda.
It was so right of Tod Papageorge to write of both joy and grief with regard to the photographer’s perception of the world. In Evans’ sharp, unsentimental and palpably true vision, there is grief certainly – poverty and degradation revealed unflinchingly, although with dignity and with little sense of exploitation. There is compassion, and a sense of quiet anger, and although Evans always denied any political engagement, we can take that with a pinch of salt. In the main, however, Evans deals with a certain kind of joy, a kind of rapture certainly – even at the height of the Great American Depression. It was Lewis Hine who stated a photographer should concern him or herself with both the things which had to be condemned, and those that had to be appreciated. Many of Evans’ colleagues opted for the former, he would have seemed to have opted for the latter, although with clear intimations of sadness and regret that ensured the respect – or at least deflected the criticism – of those who stressed the reformist programme of photography, such as his boss at the F.S.A., Roy Stryker.
The Post Office at Sprott, Alabama, exemplifies perfectly Evans’ rhapsodic brand of joy. There it sits, for it barely stands, an ugly duckling of a building that is as much a monument to confidence and the American Dream as the Empire State Building. Its scale is utterly incongruous, and its structural condition seems precarious, to say the least. It is almost too fantastic to have been invented, certainly not by any architect. It is a fascinating paradigm of the joy, but also the potential horror of a truly vernacular architecture – a delightfully creation of an indomitable self-expression, but also a misbegotten child of crass commercialism.
The pleasures, or rather the pleasures and pain of photography are the pleasures and the pain of sight. Whether a photographer is concerned simply documenting the facts of the world, or with formally restructuring them, the process begins with the experience of actually regarding the world, of making a record of sight impressions. Of course, the sight impressions that the photographer chooses to set down have the potential to reflect so much – a physical and psychological record of time and place, the trials and tribulations of human existence, even ‘the flip side of the soul’, as the photographer Charles Harbutt put it. The work of Walker Evans is formally incisive, intellectually coherent, inscrutably purposeful, intense, mysterious, beautiful. Yet at its very heart, as he himself put it, was ‘a simple desire to recognise and to boast.’
Whether we regard Evans’ image of the Sprott Post Office as a formal construction of elegant perfection, a great ‘work on paper’, or a socio-historical document of interesting, if limited import, or an external manifestation of a private, somewhat ineffable sensibility, or a combination of all of these and more, it is still the pure sight impression recorded by the camera with which we must first engage.
No doubt, the laconic and reserved Evans might have eschewed the frenzy of Jack Kerouac’s archetypal hero of the open road, Dean Moriarty – though he may well have envied him. Certainly Evans’ own literary style, as spare and as patrician as his photographs, was the antithesis of Kerouac’s convoluted outpourings. Yet, the basic sense of Evans’ photographic mission – of many photographers’ photographic missions – might be embodied in the reaction of the fabulous vagabond if, perchance, he had happened across that post office in Sprott, Alabama. And it would seem to be aptly reflected in the verb that was constantly upon Dean’s lips – the verb ‘to dig’, in its hipster sense.
This is a term that enjoyed a brief vogue, and now seems utterly anachronistic, rooted as firmly in the far-off 1950s as Doris Day and sculpted Cadillacs. However, it articulates precisely the basic wonder of an open and creative response to the world, and of one man’s experience at an obscure country crossroads on a sunny day in 1936 – and furthermore, our own perfect response to this great photograph. As Dean Moriarty might have said, ‘Dig that crazy gone shack, man, just dig it.’ Walker Evans ‘dug’ that crazy little post office absolutely. We can do no more than respond in kind.