At a time of the year when considered wisdom would be to produce an opinion piece about planning, goal setting and collation of ideas, it was a chance encounter at a great photographic exhibition that generated alternate thought processes.
The Vancouver Art Gallery presented Walker Evans – Depth of Field. Co-organised by the Josef Albers Museum Quaddrat in Germany and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta; in collaboration with the Vancouver Art Gallery, the exhibition featured more than 200 black and white and colour prints. The photographs had been curated from many worldwide sources and was a comprehensive survey of Evans’ output. Exhilarating to view on every level, including the contemporary digital prints hanging happily side by side with vintage gelatin photographs.
But it was whilst digging deeper into Evans’ background that his determination was clearly on show. His troubled relationship with Roy Stryker, head of the Information Division of the Farm Security Administration, (FSA) was a case of two determined men butting heads. In a sense, the FSA gave Evans the opportunity to create some of his best images and Evans gave the FSA some of their best images. His ex-wife Isabelle Storey describes him as shallow, selfish and heartless. Evans described Edward Steichen’s major work The Family of Man as overrated sentimental rubbish.
Yet one of the gentle lyrical photographs from the Vancouver exhibition was titled Robert Frank’s Stove, which would indicate that Evans and Frank were close friends late in Evan’s life.
Pablo Picasso’s seven female muses were but the tip of the iceberg of a self-indulgent lifestyle that he required to maintain his artistic output. Picasso is famous for telling one of his mistresses, Françoise Gilot in 1943, that ‘…for me there are only two kinds of women, goddesses and doormats’.
This politically incorrect behaviour is not uncommon in the art world.
The photographer Tina Modotti managed to, eventually, reverse the male sexist treatment of female partners. But it was only after a six year relationship with Edward Weston that Modotti was able to pursue a similar life style. Although she made no attempt to describe her male partners as her muses.
Edward Weston managed to come close to the Picasso style with his string of models and muses whilst married to Flora May Chandler. His four sons with Flora, included Brett, who would go on to become both his father’s assistant and eventually the protector of the Edward Weston legacy. Brett went on to marry and divorce four times.
Other than Modotti, Edward Weston’s most famous mistress/muse/model was Charis Wilson, eventually marrying her in 1939 and then divorcing in 1946. The relationship produced some of Weston’s most recognised photographs. Creatively the process worked for Weston but there is little documentation to say whether the relationship was as productive or rewarding for Wilson.
Garry Winogrand, despite being married twice, was not so much a womaniser as a driven photographer. His photographic legacy on death was 2,500 rolls of undeveloped film, 6,500 rolls of developed but not proofed exposures, and about 3,000 rolls only realised as far as contact sheets being made. His feeling was that photography was all about creating (exposing) the image and the post-production was of little interest to him. Winogrand taught briefly at the Institute of Design, Illinois Institute of Technology in the early 1970s, but this period in academia was driven more by financial necessity than a desire to mentor students. His clear aim was to continue to create photographs.
It is this mission that drives many artists, in every art form and therefore including photography, and delineates the character mores of these people. For some of them it is a dogged determination to succeed, but it is at all times tinged with more than a touch of selfishness.
Dare we call that apparent selfishness the mark of a great artist?
Or is that too long a bow to draw?
This essay first appeared in
February 2017 edition of
f11::for photographers and aficionados,