Week 3: Traffic, New York City
Traffic, New York City, 1928-30
Gelatin silver print
13.3 x 22 cm
Lent by Elizabeth and Robert J. Fisher, MBA ’80. © Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Settling down in New York City after his return from Paris, Evans devoted himself more seriously than ever to photography and, before long, his work began to be featured in galleries and exhibitions. "Traffic, New York City" was among the first of Evans’s works to be circulated in such a way, to be displayed as art. I think that the very striking composition of this picture, with those parallel diagonal forms dramatically sweeping across the image, clearly speaks to Evans’s avant-garde ambitions, his desire to create photographs which could quite comfortably share a gallery wall with other works of modern art.
Although Evans seemed to embrace his rising status as an artist, he would, throughout his life, strongly denounce “artiness.” For him, art and "artiness" were quite different things. I doubt an official definition of “artiness” exists, but I’d imagine it to be something similar to Stephen Colbert’s “truthiness,” a somewhat ersatz version of the genuine article that, in spite of its dishonesty or even absurdity, has the potential to deceive the unwary.
For Evans, it seems, the very essence of “artiness” was embodied by none other than Alfred Stieglitz, the New York City artist, publisher and gallerist who, arguably more than anyone else before, had promoted photography as a vital American art form. With a reputation for high seriousness, an appetite for cosmic profundity, and a tendency to wear dark, full-length capes, Stieglitz was a figure who was all too ripe for mockery, and Evans was always all too happy to oblige. For instance, writing to his friend Hanns Skolle in 1929, he reported:
“Saw Stieglitz again. He talked at length. He should never open his mouth. nobody should, but especially Stieglitz. He showed me some excellent photographs he had made: clouds, wet grass, the rump of a white horse, the bark of an old tree. As an example of his overstatement: he said of the tree bark photo: it was YEARS before I DARED to do it.”
Stieglitz, in all of his artiness, is made to seem somewhat ridiculous. After all, that photograph Evans describes, the one of “the rump of a white horse,” had been given the rather grandiose title of “Spiritual America.” Yet, as pretentious as such a caption may seem, and as tempted as we may be to snicker at Stieglitz's sincerity, there’s no denying that “Spiritual America” is an achingly beautiful image, an “excellent photograph” as Evans himself even admits. “It’s an interesting picture,” he would later claim, “but I just hate what he said by that. I hate his caption.”
What do you think about the difference between between art and “artiness,” particularly in regards to photography? Why do you think that captions and titles are so seemingly crucial to making such a distinction?