Volume 19 | Issue 29 | December 01 - 07, 2006
The Penny Post
Let us now revise famous men
By Andrei Codrescu
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 aesthetic 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 was also 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 of a considerable sum of money. The letter writer was none other than Talbot Brewer, Jr., the 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 judgment.
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.