Before the seminal depression-era work for Roy Stryker at the Resettlement Administration (RA) and then the Farm Security Administration (FSA), that ultimately led to the classic vernacular photographs of three sharecropper familes in Hale County, Alabama, included in James Agee’s epic documentary Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Walker Evans was commissioned by polemic journalist Carleton Beals and the editors at J.B. Lippincott to travel to Cuba to illustrate the atrocities of the Gerardo Machado regime for Beal’s soon-to-be-released book The Crime of Cuba. It was May, 1933, and back home in the United States, we were living through the absolute worst of the Great Depression as well as a politically charged atmosphere in which the controversy over Diego Rivera’s mural “Man at the Crossroads Looking with Hope and High Vision to the Choosing of a New and Better Future” was a subject of almost daily discussion in the press. Rivera was one of young Nelson Rockefeller’s favorite artists, and Rockefeller had commissioned him to paint a mural for the spectacular new office complex known as Rockefeller Center. Yet, when a figure of Lenin appeared in a central panel of the mural, holding the hands of both a black American and a Russian solider, it was ordered to be boarded up and taken down. But, not before Walker Evans had captured several panels with his 8×10 view camera:
Walker Evans had lost his close friend Hart Crane to a suicide on April 27, 1932: Crane had jumped off the oceanliner Orizaba on his way home from Mexico, where he was travelling under a Guggenheim Fellowship. Walker’s father, Walker Evans Jr., had died on May 1, 1933, no doubt deepening the doom and gloom surrounding the young artist. As reported in Belinda Rathbone’s controversial biography: “By 1933, at the age of twenty-nine, Evans had learned that the creative life was uncertain at best, at worst suicidal. He was also well acquainted by then with the difference between privilege and poverty. In the worst year of the Depression so far, survival was a matter of daily concern.” (Walker Evans, Houghton Mifflin, New York, 1995, page 75).
So it was perhaps with this mindset that a 29 year old Evans arrived in Havana with two cameras in tow: a medium format 2 1/2 by 4 1/4 for hand-held shots (most likely the Kodak Tourist that his father had given him in 1927), and a 6 1/2 by 8 1/2 view camera replete with tripod for more deliberate, measured exposures (while probably a necessity of my geekish, OCD mind, I plan to do an upcoming post on the cameras used by Walker Evans even though Evans emphasized the importance of the eye over the equipment). Evans spent a little over a month in Cuba, including a one week extension as a guest of Ernest Hemingway who was introduced to Evans by newspaper contacts, enjoyed his companionship, and convinced him to stay on at Hemingway’s expense to enjoy margueritas at La Floridita and go fishing on a boat that Hemingway hired for excursions (the famous Pilar was not delivered to Hemingway from Wheeler Shipbuilding until April 1934). While I have always wondered why there are no pictures of Hemingway (who could have resisted taking just a few after spending at least a full week with the writer?!), perhaps Walker Evans was too shy or just wanted to protect the man’s privacy in an effort to build a more special relationship. But, amongst the 400 pictures that Evans took in Cuba, there are several of old movie theaters, including one with a poster reading Adios A Las Armas, a clear reference to Hemingway’s classic A Farewell to Arms, which was first published in 1929, then adapted to stage in 1930, and finally to film in 1932. Was this the young Walker Evans clever way to appropriately remember his special time with Hemingway?
According to the wonderful biography of Walker Evans written by James Mellow (Basic Books, New York, 1999), Beals had already spent six weeks in Cuba in September-October, 1932, and provided a draft manuscript to his editors at J.B. Lippincott. Evans apparently arrived in Cuba in mid-May, without the advantage of having read Beal’s book, and proceeded to take over 400 images of Havana and the countryside, of which 31 are included in a sequence prepared and submitted by Evans to the editors of The Crime of Cuba. These 31 photos which appear at the end of The Crime of Cuba include some newspaper photos that Evans is purported to have “borrowed” to show the horrific atrocities and exigencies of the Machado regime that he was unable to capture with his camera.
I encourage readers to email me at email@example.com with identification of those images from those provided below which are from newspaper and police department files. I also encourage all readers to tell me why there are exactly 31 photographs by Evans at the end of The Crime of Cuba as well as why there are exactly 31 photographs at the beginning of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men?! Correct or at least plausible answers will win either a copy of Havana 1933 or Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Thank you!
Beals text has a clear axe to grind: the atrocities of the Gerardo Machado regime supported by the imperialist American government and business enterprises which all conspire to oppress the Cuban people. Evans’ photographs, on the other hand, appear to portray the people, places and things of Cuba in the “straight, documentary photography” style to which Evans was already known by an observant few (Evans had his first major exhibit before his trip to Cuba at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York in February, 1932. In this exhibit Evans’ “New York Atget” photographs were displayed opposite and contrasted with the exquisite, stylized studio photographs of George Platt Lynes) and would soon be known by generations of photographers and Americans after the epic documentary Let Us Now Praise Famous Men was published in 1941.
While it is hard to find copies of Carleton Beals’ The Crime of Cuba , two additional books that focus on Walker Evans time in Cuba are available and well worth reading: (1) Walker Evans, Havana 1933 (Pantheon Books, New York, 1989), with Essay by Gilles Mora and Sequence by John T. Hill; and (2) Walker Evans Cuba (Getty Publications, Los Angeles, 2001), with Essay by Andrei Codrescu and Introduction by Judith Keller of the J. Paul Getty Museum. The Getty has collected most of the over 400 photographs that Evans made in Cuba; and Jeff Rosenheim, Curator at the MET, has written extensively on Evans and assembled a wonderful archive of Walker Evans photographs, negatives, and other materials.
With thanks to the J.B. Lippincott Company for including the 31 aquatone illustrations at the end of The Crime of Cuba and photo credit to the Walker Evans Archive at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (with the exception of the negatives and prints in the collection of the Library of Congress which are in the public domain, all works by Walker Evans in all media, are © The Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art), I have provided scans of the sequence of photographs that Evans submitted to the editors at Lippincott to hopefully educate readers on the approach taken by Evans:
Source: The Crime of Cuba, J.B. Lippincott, Philadelphia, PA, 1933.
All works by Walker Evans in all media (with the exception of the black & white negatives in the collection of the Library of Congress) are Copyright © Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
It is the fervent hope of this blogger that by sharing these wonderful photographs and providing appropriate credit, that I am not violating any copyrights and realizing a goal of educating readers and fellow photographers.
“I wanted so much to write that I couldn’t write a word.”–Walker Evans
I think we are all lucky that Evans “couldn’t write a word” and focused on straight, vernacular photography, as I think that most will agree that for a few years there in Cuba and then in Hale County, Alabama, he produced some of the best, “straight” photographs that the world experienced until Robert Frank, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Sam Abell arrived on the scene.