It is unfortunate that James R. Mellow passed away just as his biography of Walker Evans was near completion, because he will miss the joy readers will most certainly feel at its publication. (The final pages are by Hilton Kramer.) Mellow paints his portrait of Walker Evans with details gathered from a variety of primary sources, including interviews, diaries, letters, contact sheets, notes, reviews, and work logs. Through his account of Walker Evans as one of the most significant photographers of the 20th century, Mellow also has created a cultural history of an American era.
Walker Evans's most famous photographs are probably those taken in 1935 and 1936, which begin with his work for the Resettlement Administration and continue through his project photographing tenant farmers in the South. Although these photographs provide incredible documents of Depression Era America, Evans bristled at the tendency of critics to call his work documentary. In fact, what makes Evans's photographs extraordinary is that they transcend any particular time and place, revealing fundamental truths of human existence.
Mellow provides an unusual glimpse into an artistic elite in New York from the '20s to the '50s through Evans's collaboration and correspondence with friends, including Lincoln Kirstein and James Agee. From his encounters with Hemingway to his lunches with Whittaker Chambers, Evans's life manages to connect culturally significant figures from World War I to the Cold War.
Mellow discovers that Evans remained somewhat enigmatic, even to those close to him. As a result, the most intimate and revealing moments in the book are the letters exchanged between Evans and his first wife, Jane. These letters expose Evans as warm and loving, whimsical and humorous. The photographs included in Mellow's book also enhance the portrait of Evans. In addition to some of Evans's most famous photographs, some less celebrated photographs (the blind accordion player on the subway and portraits of Jane, for instance) make an appearance and are absolutely mesmerizing.
It's a testament to James Mellow that at the end of the biography, the reader feels as though she has traveled and worked with Walker Evans. Mellow's Walker Evans is a welcome refreshment in today's desert of tell-all biographies. The biographer definitely will be missed.
Phoebe Lichty is a writer and photographer in New York City.