Beyond Photography: Claude Monet, Meet Walker Evans

Claude Monet: Rouen Cathedral, Full Sunlight (1894; public domain)

I remember sitting through a recital and lecture once by pianist Balint Vazsonyi.  The pianist’s commentary on the pieces, and on music in general, was a lively counterpoint to the music he played. I couldn’t tell you a single tune he played that night, but one thing that he said has always stuck with me. Musicians and others, he remarked, use their art as a means to solve problems, their works being scratch-pads of sorts on which dilemmas both artistic and personal are ironed out.

One thing that’s helpful about working in series (among many others) is that it’s a good way of ironing out problems. Something that only affords you one chance at getting the shot can be rewarding if you get it, but frustrating if you don’t, since it can be a long time before a similar opportunity presents itself. When you have the chance to revisit something, however, you have the chance to portray it from different angles, and to literally see it in a different light. Many artists have done some of their best work in serial form, and two of the best exemplars I can think of are impressionist painter Claude Monet (1840-1926) and photographer Walker Evans (1903-1975).

Monet didn’t quite invent Impressionism, but his 1872 painting Impression, Soleil Levant (Impression, Sunrise) was its namesake, and he was one of its most visible practitioners. Many of his best-known works – the Water Lilies, the Rouen Cathedral, Poplars, and Weeping Willows – come from works that were painted in series. The Rouen Cathedral series set out to address how light impacted color and perception. It was also a change in that it was a departure from the landscape painting that had characterized his work up to that point, though it wasn’t as much of a departure as it might at first seem; the seasonal changes of a landscape, he would come to learn, could be reflected in something as seemingly immutable as a stone building.

Working with a single subject over a period of time can be a challenge for even the best painter. Monet despaired that he’d ever get the cathedral’s ever-changing shadows and light quite right, writing at one point, ‘Things don’t advance very steadily, primarily because each day I discover something I hadn’t seen the day before… In the end, I am trying to do the impossible.’ The painter’s singular disadvantage is that the light on the subject can sometimes change during a single sitting at a rate, and in ways, the brush can’t quite keep pace with. When your medium works in fractions of a second, however, you’re at a distinct advantage. You can wait for that perfect moment when light, color, shadow and geometry all perfectly intersect, and capture it before it vanishes.

Political Poster (Walker Evans/FSA; public domain)

With that said, working in series doesn’t necessarily mean having to revisit the same place or object repeatedly. It can be as simple as finding a theme, and using that theme or type of image as a unifying thread for a series of works. While he wasn’t known for anything related to flowers or cathedrals, Walker Evans shared a similar serialist spirit with Monet. As was the case with the painter, many of the photographer’s most loved shots came from series of photos, some shot on the New York subway, others taken of signs all over the United States. The subway shots mostly had the same backdrop (subway cars) and lighting (you don’t get much variety in that respect), but the subjects on even a short ride were always changing, providing continuous opportunities for new visuals. The sign photos, meantime, ranged from the relatively durable (neon signs, or signs painted on buildings) to the ephemeral, like the already-tattered campaign poster pictured here. The works, many done for the FSA in the mid- to late-1930’s, are the perfect complement to Evans’ depictions of the rural families hardest hit by the Great Depression; whether taken individually or as a series, they’re uniquely evocative of their time and place.

If we examine even a few of Monet’s Rouen Cathedral paintings, or Evans’ sign photographs, the advantages of working in sequence become clear; it’s above all things an opportunity to see the changes wrought in a subject by time and the seasons, or a chance to tell a story even with the most mundane places and objects. If you’re starting out, assigning yourself a series to work on can also be a way to hone your skills while simultaneously finding your voice.

Links and Resources:
A short piece on Evans’ Subway photos
A page on the Library of Congress website on Evans’ FSA work, highlighting a series shot in New York
A comprehensive site on Claude Monet’s life and work