walker evans home email to a friend ossining home
 
 
 
Liberty St. woodcut by H. Skolle
Figure 2:Liberty Street, by Hanns Skolle, The Dial, April 1928
 
Hanns Skolle 1929-1930
Figure 3: Hanns Skolle, 1929-1930
 
Washington Square woodblock by H. Skolle
Figure 4: Washington Square, by Hanns Skolle, The Dial, Jan. 1928
 
Woodblock print by Hanns Skolle
Figure 5: Shore Leave, Woodblock print, Hanns Skolle. Published in The New Masses, Feb. 1927, pg. 24.
 
Library at Mt. Pleasant Military Academy
Figure 6: The Library Building of The Mt. Pleasant Military Academy in Ossining. Photo 2002
 
 
 

Walker Evans' Connection to Ossining
Walker Evans had two connections that took him to Ossining.


Hanns Skolle

Evans dropped out of Williams College in December 1923 and began to work in the Print Room of the New York Public Library in 1924.(5) It is there that he may have met Hanns Skolle (Figure 3), a German artist who lived on Croton Avenue in Ossining. Though Evans recalled that "Hanns found me in the New York Society Library (different library), covered with dust." Skolle may have been an instructor at the Mt. Pleasant Military Academy in Ossining, for his letters to Walker were sometimes datelined "The library building of the Mt. Pleasant Military Academy."” This building still stands (Figure 6). Walker and Hanns became good friends. When Walker left to spend the year of 1927 in Paris, France (his second visit there), they corresponded regularly—sometimes nearly every day.


Their friendship became intense and lasted for years. Together they engaged and explored the world and literature and discovered its other good things, as young men do. They were both in their twenties in the Twenties! Both were enthralled with literature and art and were each other's most enthusiastic critics of shared drafts of their writings and art--which included paintings by each, woodblocks by Skolle and photographs by Evans.


The book Unclassified: A Walker Evans Anthology (6) includes a letter to Hanns in which Walker describes some of the local entertainments he discovered in Ossining:

August 14, 1928

Dear H:

Your letter admirable, in parts; I believe the postscript is one of the best things that has appeared. I will answer your queries, backwards: 2: Yes, your wood-blocks are available; they are not even in the attic here, but clutter up my closet floor so that if I had as many shooz [sic] as a gentleman should have they would be in the way. The wood-cuts or the shooz? Both, Watson.


1: The Modigliani book is published by the Editions des Quatre Chemins. In Paris. Would you like to visit me for a time? Say the word and I’ll drive up to get you. There are at least two diversions here now. Discovered them both in the last few days. One: that pool at mid-day, when it is deserted, until two o’clock. Another: a game played with an ice-pick. I invented it this evening. There are two ice picks in our house. One is decorated and is obviously meant to go into the ice-box of a young married couple the girl of which would call it cute or sweet or adorable because the knob is half robbin’s egg blue (for happiness) and half white (for cleanliness and purity); this evening I found this here ice pick so God damned cute that I threw it across the kitchen and threw it hard. Now, Mister, you wouldn't think it, but that was the beginning of Throwtheicepick [sic] patents pending the world over. The point is that the thing travels through the air point first, sticks in doors, trembling dramatically the while. Just walk across the room, casually; suddenly, whirl about and sling the instrument at a portrait of Cal Coolidge hung on the door. My greatest achievement this evening was a terrific throw which sent the thing right through the door, so that a good deal of the point stuck out on the other side. Come and we will play this game.


There are also two girls to swim with and take riding. I don’t know them very well but find that they will do very nicely for that sort of thing. Come and we will play that game too.



The influence of Hanns on Walker's work is confirmed in a draft of the acknowledgments for the American Photographs exhibit at MOMA, where he wrote: "To Hanns Skolle for early teaching." (7) Later, though, Evans would not invite him to social gatherings leaving the impression that he considered Skolle to be socially unequal to his new friends in the exclusive art world. (8)

 

Jane Brewer
In 1928, after returning from his expatriate--writer fantasy in Paris, Walker came back to Ossining and lived briefly with his sister and her husband there while recovering from stomach surgery.

Walker's sister, Jane Brewer,lived on Somerstown Road, (at the intersection with Barns Road, on a thirteen-acre spread they called Berry Patch Farm. During his recuperation there, he was engaged in a project funded by his father—the growing of hybrid varieties of gladiolas, a project that he pursued for several years, and about which Skolle’s future wife joked that he was developing a hybrid "Walkeria evantina", (9) though Hanns was not so generous and referred to them as his "damned peanut bulbs." After some time at Berry Patch Farm, he got his own apartment on Liberty Street, in the Sparta neighborhood of Ossining. Some suggest he may have been escaping the demands of family life, as it appears that his mother also stayed with Jane that summer, and it may have been too crowded for his taste. His apartment was just a few minutes' walk from the imposing walls of Sing Sing prison, situated along one of the most dramatic stretches of the Hudson River. Hanns had moved to New York City just before Walker returned from Europe. Their correspondence continued—Walker now with the Ossining address. He lived on Liberty Street until October or November of 1928, when he moved to New York City himself. Later on, they would live together for a time in Brooklyn.

 

The Ossining Photographs

Walker considered the photographs he took in Ossining to be among his best. This is demonstrated by their inclusion in shows and publications for the next fifty years—including the five in American Photographs.”

Throughout his early times in Ossining he worked with a vest-pocket camera and his father’s Kodak Tourist. He and Hanns would hike all over town, photographing whatever they came upon. They often walked down by Sing Sing prison, although the prison was notably absent from his subject matter. Also absent were any photographs of the spectacular views of the Hudson River from the Ossining shoreline. He had very specific ideas about what was and was not worthy. Walker felt some things were just not proper subjects for photography. He spelled it out in one letter: (10)


Valid photography, like humor, seems to be too serious a matter to talk about seriously. If, in a note it can't be defined weightily, what it is not can be stated with the utmost finality. It is not the image of Secretary Dulles descending from a plane. It is not cute cats, nor touchdowns, nor nudes; motherhood; arrangements of manufacturers' products. Under no circumstances is it anything ever anywhere near a beach. In short it is not a lie, a cliche, somebody else's idea. It is prime vision combined with quality of feeling, no less.

To be sure, he mostly adhered to this code throughout his career, though exceptions to those forbidden subjects (every single one except for sports) were found among the 10,000 images in the Metropolitan Museum of Art Walker Evans archive (WE archive). In his Ossining photographs there are none of the expected images of the stark prison gun turrets, the dramatic vistas of the Hudson River, or the imposing mansions of the rich and famous overlooking the river from atop the sand bluffs or buried deep in the Ossining woods near his sister’s house, like the Frankensteinian castle of the Abercromby's (of Abercromby and Fitch, merchants in New York). Instead, he depicted a few ordinary people in midstep.

In a letter to Skolle in April of 1933, he said,

I have done some more things around Ossining, which grows better and better as a subject for camera.

 

Walker Evans, John Cheever and Aaron Copland
What were the connections among these three artistic giants who lived in Ossining?

Evans and John Cheever were friends as young men in lower Manhattan. Evans was a little older than Cheever, and was more advanced in ...

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