walker evans home email to a friend ossining home
 
Figure 7: View of John Cheever's Hudson St. boardinghouse room. 1931-1933
 
Figure 8: John Cheever's room, Hudson St.
 
Figure 9: Aaron Copland in Ossining. At intersection of Highland Ave, Broadway, and Croton Ave.

Connections between Walker Evans, John Cheever, Aaron Copland (continued)

 

...his career at the time they met. Walker was burdened with many demands for prints for books and gallery exhibitions. But he still insisted on doing his own darkroom work, rather than relegate it to professional or government labs. This took a lot of his time so he hired his friend, the young writer Cheever, as a darkroom assistant. They were a shoestring operation. (11) They were so poor that at one point, when he was out on assignment, the electricity was shut off at 20 Bethune Street where Cheever was working as his assistant. His other assistant, Peter Sekaer, wrote to him (12):


...the Edison Company has just cut off the light at 20 Bethune! Non payment of bill for 10-20 dollars. Am going up to see Mabrie [sic] this afternoon to try to get enough money from him to settle the bill. I don't like this errand particularly, but poor John [Cheever] can't sit over there in the dark; and, anyway, there are something like 50 more prints to be done. 1/2/36

 

According to a risque—indeed delightfully prurient—account by Cheever, he and Walker became intimate.(13)

Walker stated that it was in the style of the times for the elite to be sexually adventurous. He was promiscuous and bisexual. Married twice, he had no children. One of Jim Agee's wives, Olivia Agee, once said: "With Walker you knew you were never the only one. He was discreet about it, but I knew there were others." (14)

Walker also photographed Cheever's 633 Hudson Street boarding house room using a large-format camera with a film size not much smaller than the room itself (Figure 7). (15) He captured in one shot both a moment in the writer’s life and the world of the marginal lifestyle endured by most artists in New York City in the 1930's. Susan Cheever, in her memoir of growing up in the Cheever household (16):

The photographer Walker Evans was another good friend. Evans took a picture of my father’s boarding-house room on Hudson Street that is in the Museum of Modern Art now. My father used to say that Walker took the photograph because he couldn't believe that anyone could live in such a miserable place. His camera captured the mood of summer in a tenement, and the pathetic, saving neatness of the poor. In the photograph, an old-fashioned iron bedstead has a thin, carefully folded quilt in one corner. The sheets are perfectly tucked. The blind in the one window is drawn, and a hot afternoon light gleams from around its edges through sagging muslin curtains....

My father was having a wonderful time, though. All his life he liked to tell stories about his own poverty, and the hardships of being a young writer in New York, and the squalid room on Hudson Street. I think he was proud that he had done it that way and been penniless and unknown at the beginning. He started with nothing but his own experience and pulled his whole life and work out of the rich air of his imagination.


It is interesting, as Douglas Eklund points out, that the room on Hudson Street was not as squalid as the famous photo of it (figure 7), and Cheever's telling, might have you believe (17). Figure 8 is another image of the same room revealing a large window with good direct light. The room remains the size of a cellblock, however, so the exaggeration is quite modest.

It is not clear whether John Cheever first learned of Ossining through his friendship with Walker. Walker frequently went to Berry Patch Farm in Ossining to visit his sister and take in the countryside, and often took along friends for the day. While there were twenty years between their early friendship and the time Cheever moved to Ossining, it is possible that Cheever came to know of Ossining on such an excursion. But, according to Mary Cheever, their decision to move to Ossining was more likely based on the recommendation of John's editor at the New Yorker, William Maxwell, who lived in nearby Yorktown. By the time Cheever lived in Ossining in the 1950s, he and Walker were no longer in touch, as suggested by an account in the Journals of John Cheever of running into Walker in a restaurant in 1955 (18).



In town and theatre with the B's, me high-sprit ed after, Mary squinchy, as she is so often on these trips; and I think that while a marriage is like a boat there is a point where we can dive from the bow. And then the city seems beautiful, hustling, full of purpose and life and vitality, and I would like only to be happy and enjoy myself. We meet the B's at one of the inner parlors of the Harvard Club and Mary, or so I think, is at once animated and flirtatious. Now I may be insane, neurotic, queer, impotent, and worthless, and I may imagine all of this, but my pleasant evening begins to come to pieces. It is not significant, I think, but on the way to the checkroom I am accosted by old Walker Evans, whose face looks very puffy. Mary chats gaily with B. and I am consumed with jealousy and hopelessness. She turns to me once during the intermission to express a flat contradiction and whether or not this is imaginary I feel disemboweled. After this there is no civility left in me; my toys have been broken. Coming home I throw a beer bottle against the wall of the garage. I will curl up on the sofa and weep bitter tears


In another journal entry (19) he recounts a day in the city sometime between 1948 and 1953.


These are the hardest days, hours anyhow. In town yesterday to the dentist....Then for lunch with Linscott. He had nothing generous to say about anything. Then to an unhappy drink at the Commodore and a party at Eleanor's where Saul Bellow was. Also Walker, quite drunk on gin when he arrived, and I thought a hopeless impersonation of the upper-middle class. Then to the Dusseaus and home.

Here he mentions Walker with casual disdain. Clearly they were not on friendly terms by this time. It was only a few years earlier, in November of 1943, that he listed Walker notably among only 5 men he was ever close to(20). He wrote, curiously in the third person as though he were a character in his own story,


He thought of his friends, of the few men he had ever genuinely cared for. There were his brother. Then Denny, Evans, Flannery and McManus. Denny...

Evans was very different. He had been to Tahiti in a sail-boat but all of that was in his past. He came from Oak Park and represented the established illinois country clubs; the bi-annual visit of the Brooks representative, the grand trip to Europe, all with new luggage, the long strange journey to the eastern prep school; the limited and comfortable manhood of a rich and fashionable gentlemen from the edge of the west. There was always a great deal of elegance in his dress. Self consciousness gave him a walk mixing those of a recently landed sailor, a fighter, and a dandy. In those days he was incapable of opening his mail, but he duck-footed his way thru life. McManus had some of Evan's elegance; a pair of incredibly waxed and treed shoes; a strange and self-conscious walk, but he had the haggard, toothy face of a black Irishman.

Clearly Cheever's unraveling by the bottle-throwing end of the day had a number of triggers, but the encounter with a "puffy" former lover and mentor was certainly part of it.

One is left wanting to know more about the relationship between these two artists. How might they have influenced one another's work? Were they good friends? The three journal entries suggest that they were at first but that over the course of time Cheever felt some bitterness toward Walker.


Cheever, though only 21, had already published in both the New Yorker and the New Republic. Walker a "self-professed" failed writer may have felt intimidated by his good looking and successfully published assistant. Asked what she knew of their relationship, Mary Cheever said she didn't know much and had never met Walker. But John had had a copy of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men that Walker had given him. She once took it to a writing class that she taught sometime in the 1970s and somehow it was lost or stolen. Cheever was extremely upset about the loss. Deeply upset. Mary said the book to John was like a "holy object" (21).

Allan Gurganus, writing about the friendship between Cheever and Walker Evans (22):


The letter about Evans as his lover was the first I knew of their long history. In hindsight, easy to see all they held in common aesthetically: a classical sense of form (Cheever referred most often to the Bullfinch Mythology;, the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer), an attraction to elaborate and improvised human designs, a delight in materiality itself, and erotic fascination with texture for its own sake, a knack for finding beauty in the Domestic and in the lowliest of places. Unlike certain other modernists, they both seem to have adored, and got the joke, of Victorian excess. Unusual for the period, I think. And very forward-looking.


I know that John admired Evans as a scrupulous and gifted artist. Evans, I sensed, was generous to the younger man. When I learned of their friendship-affair, I was not surprised, being just a kid myself. I assumed that every gifted beginning artist in Greenwich Village of the 30’s-40’s knew every other, and borrowed from every other, and slept with most. And, I believe, this proved to have been true!


Cheever’s snubbing Evans as an older man was probably related to his own dis-ease about his own bisexuality. This guilt and self-loathing cut him off from so much of the joy he deserved. My own unwillingness to be John’s lover had as much to do with this pattern of his, as it did with the forty-off year difference in our ages. Like so many married gay men of his generation, he found it easier to shun a former male lover than to face a very basic fact about himself. – he was also very attuned to physical beauty and its transitory nature. My sense of Evans is that he was less vain and particular about his appearance than Cheever was. So, encountering a “puffy” Evans, might’ve given John an additional motivation to cut him, to later smash beer bottles.

 

When Benjamin Cheever, John's eldest son, was experimenting with photography in college, John referred him to Walker's work.


I remember him speaking enthusiastically of Walker Evans' work. While at college, I was interested in photography and my father pointed me to Walker Evans and spoke of that man's work with admiration. I remember him applauding the work and pointing out how primitive the equipment had been back then. He made very little of his personal connection with Evans.

My father was curiously nonpolitical. He was reluctant even to sign the letters issued to oppose the war in Vietnam. He felt that art should be quarantined from politics. It's obvious that Evans wouldn't have agreed. ....When I asked my father what Walker Evans had done after the pictures we all know, he said that he'd gotten deeply involved in picturing New York below street level. Seemed a great idea, and when I asked my father what had become of it, he said something vague about Evans getting ever loonier as time went on. The word "alcoholic" might have been employed.(23)


AARON COPLAND

What then of Aaron Copland, who moved to Ossining, in 1952, and remained there until 1960? It is not known if he ever knew Evans personally. But one of Walker’s very good friends, Ben Shahn, was the artist whom Aaron Copland said was his favorite painter. And a poet friend of Walker’s, Hart Crane, was the person who named the Copland ballet "Appalachian Spring". Also, Copland was asked by Walker's mentor in the grander art world, Lincoln Kirstein, to write the score for the ballet "Billy the Kid" (24). The point being that they moved in similar circles and may well have met. Regardless of whether they met, there is a direct artistic connection.

Aaron Copland read the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, published in 1939 and republished in the 1960s, and was so moved by Walker’s photographs and Agee’s writing that he was inspired to compose his only full opera, "The Tender Land". Erik Johns (a.k.a. Horace Everett), the librettist for "The Tender Land" and Copland’s companion at the time, wrote of it:


Then one day he played me several songs from the abandoned folk musical Tragic Ground, and he showed me a book he greatly admired, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, by James Agee, with photographs by Walker Evans. They were of a sharecropper’s family in the South. Aaron suggested a libretto duplicating the pilgrimage of Agee and Evans, who lived and worked with a poor sharecropper’s family. I derived the basic idea of the libretto from the book—two men from an outside world “invading” the inside world of a provincial family. The two men became migrant farm workers. I carefully examined the photographs in the book and kept coming back to the faces of the mother and young daughter: one, still a mother but passive and stony; the other, not yet hardened by the grim life. What effect would the entrance of two strangers have upon these lives? The answer to this question came to be my plot. (25)


The story concerned two strangers under suspicion and then falsely accused in a small agricultural town. In some ways, this paralleled events in Copland’s real life. Copland, while a complete insider to the composing world, lived in the broader world as an outsider- - a gay Jewish intellectual in the working-class Ossining neighborhood of Crotonville during the period of his testifying under subpoena in his own defense before the Senator McCarthy hearings. These circumstances could not have escaped indirect reference in "The Tender Land". The movement entitled "The Promise of Living", has a haunting beauty with a jagged and foreboding lead-in and an uplifting and fully resolved 3-part vocal harmony. (scored here for 1 guitar and 3 voices).


Now what about the third leg of the triangle: Did Cheever ever know Copland? Their houses were just 5 minutes apart walking but apparently not. According to Mary Cheever, they moved into their new house on Cedar Lane in Crotonville (roughly the northwest section of the Town of Ossining, nestled in the corner where the Hudson and Croton Rivers meet) just months after Copland had moved out. John Cheever lived there from 1961 until his death in 1982, whereas Aaron Copland was there from 1952 until 1960.


They may have met at Yaddo, the artists' retreat in Saratoga Springs, NY. Though they were never "Artist Guests" there at the same time (Copland in 1930 and 1932. Cheever starting in 1934 and periodically through 1980).

That Cheever and Copland did not know one another is supported further by the composer Ned Rorem who had studied with Copland and had had a relationship with Cheever at Yaddo. According to Rorem, Copland and Cheever were not friends and he was not aware of their ever having met (26).

More on His Background and Art
Trained Compared with the Natural Eye
Is the photographer’s eye honed or God-given? This was a question Evans would often discuss with his students. Evans said, “I used to try to figure out precisely what I was seeing all the time, until I discovered I didn’t need to. If the thing is there, why, there it is.” But, conversely, he also compelled his students to learn to observe. Memorably, he once said, “Stare. It is the way to educate your eye, and more. Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long."

Whichever view he favored, we know from these shots in Ossining that his early instincts hit the mark. The success of these early photographs suggest that his gift was in place before his photographic technique had time to be honed. His training had been in literature, his ambition to be a writer. But, failing at that, he picked up a camera as a substitute. " [O]h yes, I was a passionate photographer, and for a while somewhat guiltily because I thought that this is a substitute for something else—well for writing for one thing. . . . But I got very engaged and I was compulsive about it too.”.(27)

Guilty, because, after all, even his most ardent supporter, Lincoln Kirstein, said in the introduction to American Photographs that “taking a good picture is probably easier than painting a good picture.” So instead of writing, he turned his attention to the camera, and he brought a literary sensibility to his images. Evans described his photographic efforts as a “semi conscious reaction against right thinking and optimism. It was an attack on the establishments. “[I] Wanted to disturb them. I could just hear my father saying "why do you want to look at these scenes, they’re depressing. Why don’t you want to look at the nice things in life?"” Remember, his father was an advertising executive and, perhaps, as such was a direct counter-source for much of Evans’ aesthetic sensibilities.

His View of Other Photographers (and Himself)

Ansel Adams (and Cartier-Bresson, Weston, & Strand)

He did not think highly of the work of Ansel Adams. He once wrote of an Adams show as “"Disappointing. His work is careful, studied, weak [Paul] Strand, self-conscious, mostly utterly pointless." Not surprisingly, the sentiment was mutual. Ansel Adams denigrated Evans' work as "Petulant jabs at the social order."” In a thinly veiled return blow, Evans once said: "I am fascinated by man's work and the civilization he's built. In fact I think that's the interesting thing in the world, what man does. Nature bores me as an art form. . . . In fact, nature photographs downright bore me. . . . I think, Oh yes. Look at that sand dune. What of it? But if you're in love with civilization, as I am, you stick to that." (28) One could argue that the motivation of these two photographers is not as disparate as each might have maintained. Both sought to "document" with a “literary eye.” Their subject matters, of course, could not have been more different, nor yet more complementary.


Alfred Steiglitz

Evans also did not much like Alfred Steiglitz. He found his work to be romanticized and artistic.” But this negative opinion could be attributable to their first meeting where Evans felt slighted by Steiglitz. Skolle once said, "When I knew Walker, Steiglitz was his absolute master in the 20's and 30's" (29).

On Himself

Evans wrote of himself in a retrospective catalogue in 1962: “"The objective picture of America in the 1930's made by Evans was neither journalistic nor political in technique and intention. It was reflective rather than tendentious and, in a certain way, disinterested. . . . Evans was, and is, interested in what any present time will look like as the past."”


His Personality

“"A wry shy little man with an air of worried thoughtfulness"” Time magazine, Dec.15, 1947


Jay Leyda said that “"Evans was never active politically. He had his own cause maybe it was that of anonymous people at heart."”(30).


He once admired aloud that the painter Ben Shahn, his good friend, was unafraid to approach photographic subjects, claiming that he was too shy to do so himself. It is clear, nevertheless, in his early Ossining shots at least that he had no hesitation then to engage his subjects directly; even agressively.


“The Cruel Radiance of What Is”

James Agee described the signature of Evans' whole work as “" the cruel radiance of what is. A quality, once more, quite unexpected to find in the son of an advertising man . Perhaps this was a way of his contradicting the values held by his father."(31) Evans himself recognized a different influence: " I think I incorporated Flaubert's method almost unconsciously, but anyway I used it in two ways: Both his realism or naturalism, and his objectivity of treatment. The nonappearance of the author. The nonsubjectivity." (32)”

This nonappearance of the author (photographer) was not upheld in many of the Ossining shots. Notably the series with the woman on Main street and the mustached gentleman which he directly engaged. Note the sequence of the two photos: in the first , the subject is curious about the approaching stranger, but in the second , he has blocked Evans' passage with a look as though he were thinking “" Who are you to walk on my street and stick a camera in my face?." Note also that the third man was captured in another photograph elsewhere in town and one could imagine his whispering to his mustached friend:“"This guy has been lurking around town taking pictures. Better check him out."”

SUMMARY:

Evans lived and worked in the New York and New Haven, Connecticut, area until his death in 1975. After he died, no formal service was held at his request, but as described in Rathbone's biography (33) "memorial parties were held among his closest friends. Three women, Ginni Hubbard, Mary Knollenberg, and Adele Clement, all feeling like widows, commiserated and reminisced over a long candlelit dinner table set for four, holding a place for Walker. "I suppose a lot of people loved Walker" said Knollenberg. "He had that mysterious magical thing that some creative people have...".

Walker Evans was interested in seeing as much as in photographing. And his works taught the art of observation. He was interested in how the present looks as the past from the future. His photographs in Ossining, and our now being aware of this line of inquiry, allow us to explore that question. He lived and learned much of his early craft in Ossining. Ossining now learns something of itself from him in return. Enjoy the photographs and please share your thoughts and questions in the guest book.

ENDNOTES

1) Walker Evans James R. Mellow Basic Books, New York, 1999. Pg. 13, foreword by Hilton Kramer.

2) Ibid, Pg. 75.

3) Walker Evans55, Luc Sante, Phaidon Press, New York, Pg. 27

(ISBN 0-7148-4047-5). Met # 1994.253.275.1

(The accompanying text is worth quoting here. "Female Pedestrian, New York, USA c.1929-31. The woman may be old and angular in a way that connotes rectitude and tradition, but she is accessorized by a tabloid newspaper, the single most modern artifact of working-class urban life, each page as loud, discordant and multiply perspectival as any painting of the time. She is also cropped to appear charging and dynamic, the human equivalent of one of Evans' ancient, crumbling houses that through his lens become examples of daring, unprecedented design.'

4) It is noteworthy that out of the twenty-two New York photos in his MOMA retrospective five were shot in Ossining. This high ratio (22.7 percent) confirms his perception that these were among his best works.

5) Private correspondence with James Moske, New York Public Library Archivist. Feb. 2004. "Evans did indeed work for NYPL. He was on the staff of our Print Room from Sept. 30, 1924 until Dec. 31, 1925. There is no record that Skolle was ever a library employee. Perhaps he met Evans while visiting the library as a researcher."

6) Unclassified, A Walker Evans Anthology, Jeff L. Rosenheim and Douglas Eklund. Scalo Publishers (www.scalo.com), New York, First Edition 2000 (ISBN 3-908247-21-7). In association with The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

7) Walker Evans James R. Mellow, Basic Books, New York, 1999. Pg. 393.

8) Ibid. Pg 425.

9) Ibid. Pg 65.

10) Ibid.Pg.553. Wall label at "Diogenes with a Camera" show of Walker Evans and Alvarez-Bravo's photographs, Museum of Modern Art, NY, 1956.

11) Ibid. Pg 285.

12) Metropolitan Museum of Art. Walker Evans Archive. Letters, 1/2/36

13) The Letters of John Cheever . Ed. Benjamin Cheever. Simon and Schuster, New York, 1988. Pg. 304

14) Walker Evans. James R. Mellow, Basic Books, New York, 1999. Pg. 360

15) Walker Evans. Maria Morris Hambourg, Jeff L. Rosenheim, Douglas Eklund, and Mia Fineman. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, c. 2000. Plate 29, John Cheever's Bowery Room.

16) Home Before Dark. Susan Cheever, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1984. Pg. 23-25.

17) Douglas Eklund, Exile's Return: The Early Work, 1928-34. In Walker Evans, by M. Morris Hambourg, J.L. Rosenheim, D. Eklund, and M. Fineman, 2000, Princeton University Press, Princeton.

(18) The Journals of John Cheever. Ed. Mary, Susan, Benjamin, and Federico Cheever. Ballantine Books, New York, 1990, 1991, Pg 57

19) The Unabridged Journals of John Cheever. The Houghton Library collection at Harvard University. MS Am 2086 (2), Pg 12 in folder 1 of 13, covering years 1948 to 1953.

20) Ibid. MS Am 2086 (1), Pg. 104, Pg. 104.

21) Interview with Mary Cheever, Dec. 2003.

22) Personal correspondence with Alan Gurganus, March 31, 2004.

23) Personal correspondence with Benjamin Cheever, 2004.

24) Notebooks of the Mind: Explorations of Thinking. Vera John-Steiner, Harper and Row, New York. 1985, Pg 149.

25) Copland Since 1943. Aaron Copland and Vivian Perlis. St. Martin ’s Griffin, New York, 1989, Pg. 216.

26) Personal correspondence with Ned Rorem.

27) Walker Evans. James R. Mellow. Basic Books, New York, 1999, Pg. 76.

28) Ibid. Pg. 217.

29) Ibid. Pg. 89.

30) Ibid. Pg. 224.

31) Ibid. Pg 349.

32. Ibid. Pg. 118

33) Walker Evans: A Biography. Belinda Rathbone. Houghton MIfflin, Boston, New York, 1995. Pg. 307.