Interpretation of Walker Evans´photograph from "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" and Gertrude Stein´s portrait of Picasso

Essay, 2010

5 Pages, Grade: 1,0

Pola Sarah (Author)


1. Walker Evans / John Dewey

Interpret Walker Evans’ photograph from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by drawing on John Dewey’s programmatic statement:

“The task is to restore continuity between the refinde and intesified forms of experience that are works of art and the everyday events, doings, and sufferings that are universally recognized to constitute experience.”

John Dewey, Art as Experience Walker Evans, one of the most popular American documentary photographers of the 1930s, was also one of the first artists who steered clear of aesthetic photography and focused on documenting the dignity and hardship of American sharecroppers, laborers and farmers including their living conditions. He expressed it as an “non-‘artistic’ view”[1], but nevertheless created art.[2]

The photograph from “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” shows an old, shabby wooden wall with a provisorily arranged shelf and a silverware-carrier. The title “Kitchen wall in the Fields’ house, Hale County, Alabama“ makes clear, that it is the wall of a farmers‘ house.[3]

The photo does not have any people on it, consequently the viewer gets the feeling they must be working outside of the house. But the photographs simplicity and lack of various motives nevertheless shows the situation of laborers: they are very poor, but work hard.[4] Their lives are packed by work, but what they earn and get out of it is very little. An indicator for this is the silverware. It is placed in the center of the photograph: this suggests, that the farmers only work hard, but they only work so much to survive and be able to buy food. What John Dewey announces in his quote is, that a photographer has to connect art and real life. The real life, the life of the famers, is the base and might appear to be boring. The photographer nevertheless is able to create art by depicting this life because he is able to brigde the gap between art and life. Walker Evans does that by choosing special motives with highly expressive symbols.[5]

The Great Depression of the 1930s saw enormous changes in urban and rural America fueled by worldwide economic crisis and shifts in ideology and paradigms.[6] The political and social climate was forever altered, which radically influenced American photography:

“This is why the camera seems to me, next to unassisted and weaponless consciousness, the central instrument of our time”.[7]

The photographers tried to understand, interpret and present the changes and social forces on American society.[8] Evans does not represent the farmers, who live in the house, as victims of change, but rather depicts them and their situation in a very sober way. The picture does not raise any feelings of sentimentality like pity in the viewer. The representation is very unspectacular, quiet, self-controlled and distanced.[9] On the other hand, Evans also shows his love for odd details such as the silverware and the water-tap on the left side.[10] Evans constructs a photograph like this one by not doing more than documenting a social fact.[11] This is, what makes Evans’ photograph to be art, even if they do not appear to be art on the first sight.

As a conclusion, Walker Evans depicts the situation of a working class family by means of simple documentation: poverty is shown in details, inequality is illustrated by the composition of the photograph. Walker Evans’ works are a very sober reaction to a special social climate that rose up in the America of the 1930s. His medium plays a major role: Photography, in contrast to film and literature, shows a situation as itself without actually commenting. But the way he created his pictures he showed reality in a way that did not need any comment or further explanation. He rather did social documentation than pure art: „The photographs are not illustrative“[12] But he bridged the gap and showed more than just a famers’ wall by handling their everyday’s life in a very systematic, clear way.

592 words

2. Stein / Altieri

Use Altieri’s comment in interpreting Stein’s portrait of Picasso

“Stein shows that language can itself play various substances and registers against each one another, so that the word takes on a cubist density of perspectives and facets that echo and contrast with each other”

Charles Altieri, Painterly Abstraction in Modernis American Poetry: The Contamporaneity of Modernism (1989)

“One whom some were certainly following was one who was completely charming. One whom some were certainly following was one who was charming. One whom some were following was one who was certainly completely charming.

Some were certainly following and were certain that the one they were then following was one working and was one bringing out of himself then something. Some were certainly following and were certain that the one they were then following was one bringing out of himself then something that was coming to be a heavy thing, a solid and a complete thing.”

Gertrude Stein, from “Picasso” (1909)

Gertrude Stein does not give a clear description attributed to Picasso. Her quote about the famous painter is no usual, common portrait as you would expect it to be. The avant-garde American authoress rather builds up a contrast containing different opinions, expectations and points of view on Picasso that are brought together in her text. She depicts Picasso without anecdotes or facts about him. Stein focuses on the essence of Picasso:

“Another of her concerns was ‘to tell what each one is without telling stories … so that the essence of what happened would be … the essence of the portraits.’ She was also interested in ‘the relation between color and sound.’”[13]

This is what Altieri analyses: Stein builds up a structure, that describes Picasso. It may be called a literary Cubism, similar to what Altieri announces:

“[…], so that the work takes on a cubist density of perspectives and facets […]”.

When Gertrude Stein wrote this passage about Picasso in 1909, cubism as a phase of art had developed to a very analytic way of painting. Gertrude Steins’ text is very analytic as well.

The first part of her portrait contains three sentences with almost the same words. Nevertheless every sentence has its own meaning and expresses something different. In opposition to the first sentence, the second one does not show an outstanding charm but rather seems to talk about someone average charming.

The sentences, especially of the first part, are all linked to each other and by being connected in this portrait they built up a portrait of Picasso. By using this kind of repetition she gives a very fundamental description of Picasso, emblazing different characteristics and what people might see in him. Repetition is one of her basic literary principles. Anyway, her quote does not raise any deep feelings like anger in the reader. She composes a literary picture of Picasso like he draw a painting of her.

The second part of the portrait concentrates more on the success and career as Picasso being an artist. It is focused on the future, whereas the first part is about the past. Picasso, who in those times, was not nearly as successful and famous as he was later on during his career, appears to be destined for greater outcome as Gertrude Stein describes it in the last sentence of the portrait:

“Some were certainly following and were certain that the one they were then following was one bringing out of himself then something that was coming to be a heavy thing, a solid thing and a complete thing.”

But Gertrude Stein wanted art to live in the total present. You may draw a comparison of her use of language to film and cinema: A movie consists of many different pictures that are not alike and stand for themselves. Every sequence is different and continues the flow of the movie. She does the same with language.[14]

To come to a conclusion – Gertrude Stein found a very special and unique way to portrait a person, in this case the painter Pablo Picasso. She used language in a way a painter uses colors und a director uses pictures, sound and perspective. She builds up a very analytic all-round view on Pablo Picasso which contains links to the past and the future without naming a single typical character trait. Altieri analyses this by coming back to a very art-specific vocabulary.


[1] James Agee, Walker Evans: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001), page 9

[2] This was highly important after the political climate had drastically changed during and after the Great Depression.

[3] Tom Ang: “Der Soziologe Roy Styker von der amerikanischen Farm Security Administration beauftragte um 1930 ein Fotografenteam, das Leid der verarmten Farmerfamilien zur Zeit der Weltwirtschaftskrise festzuhalten. Mit den Aufnahmen und Fotoausstellungen sollte die Solidarität mit den Betroffenen gefördert werden. Zu den von Stryker ausgewählten Fotofragen gehörten Ben Shahn, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange und Carl Mydans. Die rund 270 000 Dokumentaraufnahmen werden auch heute noch veröffentlicht und ausgestellt.“, Fotografie, Dorling Kindersley Verlag GmbH, Starnberg, 2006, page 93

[4] Uwe M. Schneede:“Walker Evans war der Diagnostiker des zu kurz gekommenen Lebens.“, Die Geschichte der Kunst im 20. Jahrhundert, Verlag C. H. Beck oHG, München, 2001, page 137

[5] The picture is not very deep, the wall seems rather flat and small. Wood is an essential material in this and in other photographs of Walker Evans. Wood is one of the basic building materials. It represents the opening up of the forests and as a result the wooden walls represent American civilization.

[6] Melanie Tumm: Die Photographien der FSA zwischen Dokumentation, Kunst und Vision an Beispielen von Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans und Russell Lee (Hannover, 2000, Magisterarbeit) Chapter 4.2, 5.1.1.

[7] James Agee, Walker Evans, page 9

[8] Miles Orvell: American Photography – Oxford History of Art (Oxford-University-Press, Oxford/New York, 2003), page 105

[9] Tumm, chapter 4.2

[10] Schneede: „Mittlere Distanz, frontaler Blick in Augenhöhe, in der Regel gleichmäßiges Licht ohne große Schatteneffekte machen die Details kenntlich und objektivieren den subjektiven Ausschnitt.“, page 133

[11] Jochen Poetter: „Einer der herausragenden Künstler, Walker Evans, der jeder Versuchung widersteht, durch bewegt Dramatik die Aussagekraft der Bilder zu steigern, erreicht die Intensität seiner Dokumente durch eine ruhige statische Komposition und betonte Frontalität: ein bloßes Sich- Zeigen.“, Kunst im 20. Jahrhundert, DuMont Literatur und Kunst Verlag Köln, 2004, page 77

[12] James Agee, Walker Evans: page 11

[13] James D. Hart: The Oxford Companion to American Literature, Oxford University Press, New York/Oxford, 1995, page 634

[14] Hart, page 634

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Interpretation of Walker Evans´photograph from "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" and Gertrude Stein´s portrait of Picasso
University of Frankfurt (Main)
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photography, Picasso, painting
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Pola Sarah (Author), 2010, Interpretation of Walker Evans´photograph from "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" and Gertrude Stein´s portrait of Picasso, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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