What I see in this image is what I imagine to be the ideal portrait style. What I mean by ideal is not only in terms of aesthetic value (after all this is a famous photograph by a famous photographer), but also in terms of the expression of the subject.
Actually, what drew my attention to this photograph is that it does not appear to me, at first glance, as an agreeable portrait. I find several reasons for this, such as:
- The child seems interested in something happening on her left;
- She is not smiling;
- The light is harsh, casting strong shadows;
- Due to her sideways look, much of the white of her eyes is visible.
Yet, this picture is beautiful in terms of what it tells me. Her clothes indicate that she is probably of a modest family. Yet, her hair is clean and apparently well groomed. While the background seems to be some kind of wooden shack, a rather skilful drawing shows a smiling elegantly dressed feminine figure with a hat. This creates a direct contrast with the child’s apparent social condition.
Her look suggests that she may be watching some other children misbehaving or doing something funny. I could nearly hear her say: ‘what on earth are they doing?’ Her gaze is intense.
As for the drawing of the feminine figure, did it appear in the frame accidentally or did Evans ask his subject to move to this particular spot? I could not find any documentation on the circumstances of this particular photograph.
Shot in 1932, this photograph pre-dates the period Evans worked for the Farm Security Administration (FSA). The FSA endeavoured to document the effects of the US federal government’s measures to help farmers during the great depression. Therefore, its photographers had to produce work according to a certain image codification (Clarke, 1997 and Kozloff, 2007). Yet, Evans did not accept to be directed in his photography (Badger, 2007) and did not stay for long on this assignment. His views on photography are clearly visible in the “Child in Back Yard” photograph: Evans captures an instant, with no pose, no mandatory smile; it is just a snapshot. However, there is still the question as to whether he deliberately organised his subject to stand next to the drawing or not.
Photography as a documenting tool or as an art is for me a very important topic. While I think that it could be both at the same time, there is no escaping from the question as to whether a photograph depicts reality or not. One answer could be a strong “no”, as stated by photographer Duane Michals, who never believed in portraits in spite of liking this photographic discipline (Kirby, 2009). But then, why is it that photographs “have virtually unlimited authority in a modern society “(Sontag, 1977, p.153)? This is the ambiguity in Evan’s work. His style breaks from the traditional portrait photography such as that of Nadar or August Sander. But Kirstein (1988, p.194) comments “Evan’s eye is a poet’s eye”, thus granting him the status of artist. On the other hand, Clarke (1997) explains that Evans wanted to document the essence of America using a documentary approach.
I can identify with Evan’s perspective. For a long time, I wanted to shoot nice scenes, in particular in nature, until I became more recently interested in people photography. In the past, such subjects were too reminiscent of the traditional family or holiday pictures which I regarded as a negligible activity. Therefore, when capturing people now, I do not necessarily want them to pose. What I am looking for is the short moment when a person discloses a fraction of their inner self, being unaware of the photographer. Although this is a difficult exercise: it is often that the expression of an instant turns into a grimace, which if shown, would shame the subject. I myself dread such a situation when it happens to me. Capturing the right instant may now be easier with digital cameras as we are no longer limited by the mere 24 or 36 exposures of a traditional film and can shoot as many exposures as we want. Nevertheless, I admire photographers who, in not so far away times, could shoot the only one right photograph. For example, Tony Vaccaro recounts how he met Picasso, who insisted in adopting various poses, all unsatisfactorily for the photographer (Kirby, 2009). Eventually, Vaccaro feigned a camera malfunction, attracting genuine interest from the great painter and seized this exact moment to shoot the portrait he was hoping for. Before him, Henri Cartier-Bresson had come back from a similar encounter with the artist, disappointed by the results. With the facility provided by cutting edge technology, I wonder if I succeed in developing the essential qualities of a photographer as explained by Cartier-Bresson: “To take photographs […] is putting one’s head, one’s eye, and one’s heart on the same axis” (Cartier-Bresson, 1999, p.16).
|Badger, G. (2007) The Genius of Photography, London: Quadrille Publishing Limited|
|Cartier-Bresson, H. (1999) The Mind’s Eye, New-York: Aperture Foundation|
|Clarke, G. (1997) The Photograph, Oxford: Oxford University Press|
|Kirby, T. (2009) The Genius of Photography Episode 5. [DVD] United Kingdom: BBC Worldwide Ltd.|
|Kirstein, L. (1988) ‘Essay’. In: The Museum of Modern Art, Walker Evans American Photographs. New York: The Museum of Modern Art. Pp.189-198.|
|Kozloff, M. (2007) The Theatre of the Face, London: Phaidon Press Limited|
|Sontag, S. (1977) On Photography, London: Penguin Books Ltd|
|The Museum of Modern Art, (ed.) (1988) Walker Evans American Photographs, New York: The Museum of Modern Art|
|Walker Evans (1988) ‘Child in Back Yard, 1932’. [photograph] In Walker Evans American Photographs. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, p.17|