Columns » Penny Post by Andrei Codrescu

Art Revisionism



Walker Evans is best known for his black-and-white photographs of the Great Depression, most notably in James Agee's book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. He did a lot of other remarkable work, including the wartime "Subway" series where he photographed New York subway riders with a hidden camera, revealing the deep anxieties of the age. He also captured the proliferation of commercial signage in America and made the quickly growing language of advertising a subject of esthetic inquiry. Scholars have usually attributed Walker Evans' fascination with advertising to his father, who had worked for an advertising agency.

In 1998, I wrote an essay for Signs, a book of Evans' photographs of public signage published by the Getty Museum. In my essay, I repeated the commonly held assumption that Evans was influenced by his father. In November 2006, I got a letter. Not so, the correspondent wrote. Walker Evans hated his father, who'd abandoned the family in his childhood. He was most likely influenced by his brother-in-law, Talbot Brewer, who also was a photographer. In fact, the letter writer went on, Evans followed in Brewer's footsteps all his life, beginning with his earliest employment in Roosevelt's State Farm Administration. The letter grew increasingly heated in defense of this theory, ending rather surprisingly with an attack on Evans himself who, at the height of his fame, cheated his brother-in-law out of a considerable sum of money. The letter writer was no other than Talbot Brewer Jr., son of the man wronged by art history.

Essayists have been writing about Evans for the past 50 years, and at least eight years have passed since my essay. In all that time, Talbot Brewer Jr., a man who must now be in his 60s, thought about the injustice done to his family. I summarized his letter briefly, but in addition to the thesis, the letter contains numerous references to the honorable services performed by his father for our country, and to the uncommon patience of his family for the disturbed branch of the Evanses. Walker's father and mother come in for harsh judgement.

Which brings me to a more general point, which is that if you're famous, you can run but you can't hide. The dissidents and revisionists, seething in obscurity, wait for their hour to expose the world's wrong-headed views of you. The "true" story doesn't matter all that much because, in the end, the work itself will serve as evidence of worth, and no biographical revision can change that. Is Talbot Brewer Jr. right? Maybe. Does it matter? Only to the second edition, which must now be footnoted.

Andrei Codrescu's latest book is New Orleans, Mon Amour: Twenty Years of Writing From the City (Algonquin Books).

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