Lessons from Evans

K Madhavan Pillai

K Madhavan Pillai

The nice thing about reading first-hand interviews with some of the greatest masters of a medium, especially at a point in their lives when they look back, is that one gets simple answers to questions. One such interview of Walker Evans was conducted by Paul Cummings in 1971 for the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. The whole interview has a lot to learn from. These are some small excerpts.

Cummings: You had, what, temporary jobs and things of that nature?
Evans: Yes. I had odd jobs. I guess soon after that I got hold of a camera and got passionately interested in that. I do remember having jobs at night at two different places, once on Wall Street, and once at the New York Public Library so that I could have the days free. I photographed during the day.
Cummings: How did the camera appear? Was that through a friend? Or what happened?
Evans: I really don’t know very much about that. I just don’t know. As a boy I had a cheap little camera and I had gone through the hobby photography experience developing film in the bathroom and so on. And I think it came from painters. Several of my friends were painters. And I had a visual education that I had just given myself.
Cummings: Going back to the chronology here in the thirties, what kind of cameras and things were you interested in? Did you have a specific kind of equipment?
Evans: I’ve always been interested in cameras. I’m even interested… well, I was interested a little bit too much even in the technique of photography. It’s a fascinating thing. But it hasn’t much to do with art and an artist had better stay away from it, not get absorbed in it. It’s too absorbing.
Cummings: Oh yes, there are endless darkroom tricks.
Evans: Oh yes, you can do all kinds of tricks. It’s just better not to. I am after mastery of what I want to do; that is, I want to be able to do what I want to do, and do it well. And I insist on that even in teaching. I say, “You’ve got to know what you’re doing and be on top of it and do it well. There’s no excuse not to know the technique well.” But I don’t teach the technique. I say you should go out and do it somehow or other, get it yourself.

This article originally appeared in the December 2015 issue of Better Photography.

Tags: K Madhavan Pillai, Edit note, December 2015