A superb biography of a photographer who, dead for a quarter of a century, still exerts a powerful influence. The late literary biographer Mellow (Hemingway: A Life without Consequences, 1992, etc.), who died in 1997, views Walker Evans (1903—1975) primarily as a politically committed storyteller and documentarian; in this regard he echoes the critic Carl Van Vechten, who wrote of a 1938 collection of Evans's images of the Depression era, "if everything in American civilization were destroyed except Walker Evans's photographs, they could tell us a good deal about American life." Unlike some critics, however, Mellow does not take this to mean that Evans was primarily a left-wing propagandist, even if his most famous work, the photographs accompanying James Agee's text Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, were summary indictments of American capitalism. (Evans's friends, Mellow writes, were puzzled when in 1945 Evans accepted a position at the high-capitalist Fortune magazine, whose publisher Henry Luce had become convinced that "it is easier to turn poets into business journalists than to turn bookkeepers into writers" and who gave Evans a free hand during the photographer's 21 years on the magazine's staff.) The portrait that Mellow offers is one of Evans as an extraordinarily talented and hard-working artist but also as something of a wastrel, one who greeted his biographer at their first meeting in 1974 with the offer of an early-morning glass of brandy and who logged time getting soused with Ernest Hemingway in Cuba and Edmund Wilson in Manhattan. Despite his penchant for the bottle, though, as Mellow ably documents, Evans inspired and taught many young photographers, perhaps the most notable of them the Swiss ÇmigrÇ Robert Frank; he also crafted a rich body of work that is well represented in the 150 images placed throughout Mellow's text. Well written, lively, and thoroughly documented, Mellow's biography is a fine contribution to American art and cultural history.
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