Anastasia Samoylova & Walker Evans: Floridas
Edited, co-designed and with an extended essay by David Campany
200 pages, 144 images, Hardback / Clothbound, 29.5 x 26.2cm, English, ISBN 978-3-96999-007-0
Sunshine state. Swampland paradise. Tourist aspiration. Real estate racket. Refuge of excess. Political swing-state. Sub-tropical fever dream. With forms of nature and culture found nowhere else, Florida is unique. It is also among the most elusive and misunderstood of places. Anastasia Samoylova photographs Florida on intensive road trips. Walker Evans (1903–75) photographed it over four decades. Twisting the visual clichés, these two remarkably discerning observers convey Florida’s dizzying combination of fantasy and reality.
Evans witnessed modern Florida emerging in the 1930s, with its blend of cultures, waves of tourism, stark beauty and blatant vulgarity. He photographed there until the 1970s, making Polaroids that still feel contemporary. Samoylova inherits what Evans saw coming. With intelligence and humor, she picks her way through the seductions and disappointments of a place that symbolizes the contradictions of the United States today. In Floridas, photographs by Samoylova and Evans are presented in parallel, weaving past and present, switching between black-and-white and color imagery, all complemented by an essay by editor David Campany and a visionary short story by celebrated novelist and Florida resident Lauren Groff.
“Floridas is a fascinating project that juxtaposes photos of the state taken by Walker Evans mostly in the 1940s (as well as a few paintings he made a couple of decades later) with pictures made in recent years by the Russian-born Anastasia Samoylova. Many of Evans’s photos are unfamiliar, and some of Samoylova’s are in black and white, so that now and then the reader can be momentarily unsure who took what. The two photographers share an appreciation for the collage-like incongruities the state seems to offer in abundance, for the degree of artifice that produces them and the pictorial flatness they generate. But where Evans was chronicling a Florida on the verge of expansion from tourism and construction, Samoylova shows us a state already battered by climate change, not to mention overbuilding. They both enjoy the outlandish roadside attractions, the hot colors, the folk art, but Samoylova’s pleasures are tempered by the presence of gun culture, poisonous politics, and environmental destruction now and to come. Water is mercurially beautiful, as she shows in her shimmering reflected surfaces, but it will sooner or later cover everything.” – Lucy Sante, The New York Times
The book contains David Campany’s extended essay ‘Anything, Ever, Anywhere Near a Beach’.
Sunshine state. Swampland paradise. Tourist aspiration. Real estate racket. Refuge of excess. Political swing-state. Sub-tropical fever dream. With forms of nature and culture found nowhere else, Florida is unique. It is also among the most elusive and misunderstood of places.
“Landscapes can be deceptive. Sometimes a landscape seems to be less a setting for the life of its inhabitants than a curtain behind which their struggles, achievements and accidents take place.”[i] So wrote John Berger. In Florida this is true, although the ‘curtain’ often feels more like a translucent veil bearing life-size images of a fantasy Florida. This veil, this deception, is an integral part of what Florida is. One cannot simply rip it aside, in the hope of setting eyes upon the real thing, upon the “struggles, achievements and accidents.” The veil must be studied closely, to feel how it alters what is seen through it. Florida is the veil and the veiled.
This is a book about the very different but related Floridas photographed by two of its most acute and thoughtful observers, Walker Evans (1903-75) and Anastasia Samoylova (1984-). Both have concerned themselves with the deeper truths that emerge from complex and layered surfaces. Both have been mindful of the shifting equation between image and reality that lays in wait for any photographer wishing to understand Florida.
Samoylova moved to Miami Beach, that most excessively Floridian patch of Florida, in 2016. She photographs intensively, crisscrossing the state on road trips, with long days exploring on foot. Attracted at first by the light and the familiar image of luxuriant paradise, it soon became clear that Florida was a fraught place, with little conscious sense of its conflicted past, and a future made hostage to an erratic economy, and an even more erratic climate. She arrived as a studio-based photographer. Her celebrated series Landscape Sublime (begun in 2013) comprises still life assemblages of generic image types – ‘beaches’, ‘glaciers’, ‘mountains’, ‘forests’ and so on – downloaded from the internet, printed out, sculpted into three dimensions, and re-photographed. A different game of veils, Landscape Sublime is a meditation upon over-familiar pictures and how they saturate the imagination. In Florida, however, Samoylova found that whatever combination she could conjure in the studio was more than matched by what lay beyond her door. Few places are as image conscious, and few are as dependent upon maintaining a public brand so at odds with the realities. The veil wafts in the humid breeze, aligning differently depending upon the point of view. For the casual eye, the tourist eye, the visual puzzle is a pleasant kind of delirium. Living there is another matter. One either succumbs to it, or grows fascinated with how it works.
For a year or so, Samoylova allowed her photographs accumulate. Looking through them, what first became clear was the mood of dread and denial at the effects of rising sea levels. This led to the book FloodZone 2019, a complex pictorial sequence mixing lush pleasures with gnawing unease. Deeper within the project were other images that edged toward something even less tangible: Florida itself.
For several decades, the state has been imploding – politically, culturally, ecologically. In the process it has become easy to caricature. “Only in Florida…” A joke may have a kernel of truth, but it is also a deflection, and this is what Samoylova was beginning to consider. She looked to make images that might open up the question of how, or if, Florida can be comprehended, and how it came to be this way. She is not the first photographer to have considered this. It was her discovery that Walker Evans had set himself a similar task that brought her own distinct project into focus.
Note to Self
In a wall text written for an exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1956, Walker Evans made one of his more mischievous remarks:
Valid photography, like humour, seems to be too serious a matter to talk about seriously. If, in a note it can’t be defined weightily, what it is not can be stated with the utmost finality. It is not the image of Secretary Dulles descending from a plane. It is not cute cats, nor touchdowns, nor nudes; motherhood; arrangements of manufacturers’ products. Under no circumstances is it anything ever anywhere near a beach.
In truth, Evans enjoyed the beach. He was a keen swimmer and lover of boats. He photographed Florida over a greater span of years than he photographed just about anywhere else. From a commission that first brought him in 1934, through vacations, visits to friends and family, a book project, magazine work, and a last trip in 1974, he amassed a large but little-known body of work.
In the 1920s, the arrival of major north-south road and rail access to Florida led to a vast real estate boom, and a burgeoning tourist industry. When the boom turned to bust, the shock was a major contributor to the nationwide financial crash of 1929.[ii] The situation interested the New York-based Evans. In January 1934 an invitation came to photograph the Island Inn, at Hobe Sound on Florida’s east coast. Evans enjoyed the luxury of what was really a winter colony for northerners, but he was keen to look beyond it, to what was a tough life for many in the region. For example, he met and photographed a Black pastor and his family. His measured yet empathetic portraits, made around their clapboard house, anticipate the much better-known ones he made two years later of tenant farmers in Hale County, Alabama. He also photographed home interiors of the wealthy and the working class, roadside scenes, and men painting real estate billboards, among other things.
Florida was stark. Its disparities of wealth and its cultural patchwork were unavoidable even in the 1930s. For a photographer, stark places may allow all manner of things to be understood and visualized. It was on that first Florida trip that Evans became fully conscious of the direction he was to take with his photography. A letter written at the Island Inn included a list of subjects:
People all classes, surrounded by bunches of the new down-and-out. Automobiles and the automobile landscape. Architecture, American urban taste, commerce, small scale, large scale, the city street atmosphere, the street smell, the hateful stuff, women’s clubs, fake culture, bad education, religion in decay. The movies. Evidence of what people of the city read, eat, see for amusement, do for relaxation and not get it. Sex. Advertising.[iii]
He never mailed the letter but kept it, as a note to himself. In Florida, Evans was becoming the Evans we know, the wary but curious chronicler of the widening chasm between ideals and bleak if beautiful fact. His subsequent visits were more than respite from the cold north: they were returns to the place where his sensibility had taken shape. He shot Florida on every format, from an 8×10 inch view camera to a Polaroid SX-70. Florida also featured in his large collection of postcards, and in his occasional paintings. Even so, he never lived there and his time in the state cannot have amounted to much more than a year.
The Mangrove Coast
Evans’s most substantial commitment to Florida came in 1941. Karl Bickel, a veteran newspaperman who had retired to the town of Sarasota, was preparing a book, The Mangrove Coast: The Story of the West Coast of Florida. It was a historically-minded account of the region, taking in pirate sorties, the Seminole wars, cigar manufacture, and a lot of fishing. Evans was invited to make photographs for it. Commissions were scarce during the war, and the prospect of a well-paid six week shoot in the sun was attractive, although he was at first unsure whether it was really what he wanted to do. It seems what swayed him was the chance of a honeymoon: Evans married Jane Smith Ninas in October 1941, and he agreed to the assignment the following month.
The Mangrove Coast was the third journalistic publication for which Evans provided a free-standing sequence of images. The first had been Carleton Beals’s The Crime of Cuba 1933, an exposé of the US-backed Machado regime. Earlier in 1941 James Agee’s text and Evans’s photographs of the lives of tenant farmer families had been published as Let us now Praise Famous Men. In all three books Evans’s photographs dod not illustrate the writing in any conventional way. Temperamentally and politically, Evans was at odds with the mainstream of journalism (as is Samoylova). He engaged with it on his own terms, working as independently as possible. He got to know Karl Bickel, and even made some portraits of him, but he kept his distance.
In his sequence, and his Florida word more generally, Evans adroitly side-steps tourist cliché, and twists the stale conventions of the illustrated field guide. The mood is often detached and melancholy, beneath which run currents of unease about consumerism and ingrained racial hierarchies. Black people are waiting; white vacationers seem only vaguely content in their insular rituals; campsites are scruffy; scrapped cars rust in ugly yards; and nature looks forlorn. When Evans addresses the picturesque it is by quite literally photographing a rack of postcards. He places this shot at the very end of his sequence, as if to say, “This is probably what you wanted all along.” Quite what the publisher and public made of it is hard to tell, but the photographs appeared only in the first edition of The Mangrove Coast. Those images, plus a striking feature in Harper’s Bazaar on the famous Ringling circus that wintered in Sarasota, were all that was glimpsed of Evans’s photography of Florida until well after his death.
Kindred Spirits, Crossing Paths
Anastasia Samoylova knew of Evans’s best-known images (almost every serious photographer does) but her discovery of his engagement with Florida affirmed the direction she had taken. It was not a matter of influence, so much as the recognition of a deep affinity, which became clear in an encounter just north of Florida. She recalls:
In 1936, Walker Evans was shooting a lot in the American South. It was probably while on a wandering route by car from New York to Alabama that he stopped in St Mary’s, Georgia, to photograph the ruin of a sugar mill. The building was made of ‘tabby’, which is formed from crushed seashells. I was passing through St Mary’s too, and stopped to see if the ruin is still there. It is. The place is dreamlike, surrounded by thick forest. We all know that sugar mills were often operated by slave labour, and one feels the tension between that moment and the strange beauty of the place. Evans took several shots there but the one I like, the best known, is quite surreal, like a Magritte painting. The forest and the walls blend into each other. To revisit a ruin that was photographed eighty years earlier is to move through layers of history. I walked around the building, tracking the light, thinking of what working life must have been like there. I thought of Evans being there, of my own relation to the place, and of photography’s strange way with time.[iv]
Samoylova reshot Evans’s view, and took a number of others, finding her own understanding of the ruin. Returning to places once pictured by Evans has become something of a rite of passage for many photographers. In general, this is not Samoylova’s approach. While she has found herself in several of Evans’s Florida locations, she does not ‘reshoot’ them. Her only other direct homage comes in her light-hearted series Breakfasts With, where books by photographers she admires appear in still life compositions. What she shares with Evans is a disposition towards the visual, and an attitude towards the world. They both have a ‘hungry eye’, to borrow Evans’s striking phrase, and their images are visually direct, combined with a deep ethic of restraint. The photographs are as pensive and unjudgmental as they are descriptive. There is serious care in the choice of subject and how to photograph it, but much is left open. It is an art of confident and gentle indication, grounded in respect for what an attentive viewer may bring. There are no easy readings, no slick rhetorical tricks, no packaged messages. Each image is made on its own complex terms, but the ambiguities permit them to be read in relation to each other.
In some ways, Samoylova’s finding affirmation in the work of Evans was akin to Evans having found his own in the work of Eugène Atget, the French photographer who had pursued an idiosyncratic path making evocative and often mysterious images of pre-modern Paris. In 1930, Evans had been introduced to Atget’s work by Berenice Abbott, who had known Atget and brought his images to New York. Evans immediately saw Atget as a forebear. In 2017, the Wolfsonian Museum in Miami presented an exhibition of Abbott’s 1954 road trip photographs, made along US Route 1 up the east coast of the United States, from Miami to Maine. Seeing this show is what prompted Samoylova to begin her own road trips across Florida.[v]
North and South
Florida is a peninsular, widest in the north where it borders Alabama and Georgia, narrowest as it tapers into the archipelago of the Keys. Peninsulas tend to be backwaters. Nobody passes through, en route to somewhere else, at least by car. But Florida has become a place of transience in other ways, through tourism, second homes, and the speculative parking of money in real estate. There are resident populations, of course, many of which serve and depend upon the transience in different ways, while others are rooted in agriculture. Nevertheless, a sense of impermanence pervades Florida. In the heat and humidity nature is uncannily aggressive, always threatening to return the place to swampland. The coastline shifts with the unpredictable weather, and in the south particularly, seawater is endangering the freshwater.
Evans appears not to have made it as far south as Miami Beach, where Samoylova is based, although a set of his 1933 images of Cuba, given to Ernest Hemingway in Havana for safe-keeping, languished for many years in the writer’s house in Key West, Florida’s southernmost town.[vi] Samoylova came across a second Evans trove at Michael Rybovich & Sons Custom Boat Works, at Palm Beach, fifty miles north of Fort Lauderdale. She had seen Evans’s Fortune magazine feature ‘Pop Rybovich’s Backyard’, published in July 1961, and was surprised to discover the firm still existed. At Evans’s request, Fortune had sent several of his rolls of unused colour images back to the Rybovich office, where they remain in safe hands. Samoylova made her own photographs around the boatyard, and in her portrait of Michael Rybovich, the current boss, we can see on the wall Evans’s portrait of Michael’s father, Johnny. Evans had been a little reluctant to do the shoot, perhaps because of his aversion to almost anything state-of-the-art. In 1963 he wrote, “Design just a little dated will interest any artist. Design current is always terrible. Anyone who has tried to find a good contemporary lamp or clock will know what I mean”.[vii] Sixty years on, Rybovich boat building continues, with technological updates but much the same now-classic designs, against all fashion. Today it would be just the kind of subject Evans would relish. Samoylova’s photographs are a fond answer to Evans’s mixed feelings, and an affirmation of his take on the endurance of good design.
The neon mercury vapor-stained
It’s red as meat
It’s a cheap pink rosé.
– Joni Mitchell, ‘Otis and Marlene’, 1977
While Evans is known for his black and white work, colour forms a quarter of his archive, much of it made for magazines, with his Polaroids of the early 1970s rounding out his creative life. Like many of his generation, he was at times suspicious of colour, largely through its association with commerce, and because too often it looked crude when printed. Photographic film was highly nuanced in its capture, yet in the darkroom and on the page it disappointed. “There are four simple words for the matter, which must be whispered: Color-photography is vulgar,” wrote Evans, but quickly added: “When the point of a picture is precisely its vulgarity or its colour-accident through man’s hand, not God’s, then only can colour film be used validly.”[viii] The artistically ambitious colour photographers who came along after Evans, such as William Eggleston and Stephen Shore, often took man-made vulgarity as their subject matter. In more recent years however, digital technologies have made possible colour photographs of great delicacy.
Anastasia Samoylova is a ‘digital native’, moving easily between the vulgarity and the beauty in Florida’s colour palette. For example, pink runs through her work as it runs through the region, and its meaning is often double-edged. When pink occurs organically (skies, flowers, exotic birds) it is a sign of vitality. By contrast, the man-made pinks of buildings, décor, and commodities revel in artifice. They are sugary, often camp, and in danger of trying too hard. Pink can feel depthless, as thing as an image, which goes go some way to explaining why it is so photogenic.
The ambiguity of colour is a key to Florida’s psyche, and Samoylova has attuned to it, making photographs that play chromatic seduction against itself. What is beautiful in her work is also troubled or deceptive. Consider the famed Art Deco neighbourhood of Miami Beach, with its signature baby blues, dusty yellows and powder pinks. Most of these buildings were originally white, the default non-colour of International Style modernism as it arrived from Europe in the 1920s and 30s. It was only in the 1980s, when Miami’s reputation for cocaine-fuelled gun violence threatened to scare the tourists away, that it got a rainbow makeover. The new colour scheme was adopted and promoted as if it were historically authentic.[ix]
Samoylova offsets the colour rush with occasional black and white images. It is a strategy she first developed for her previous project, FloodZone. Walker Evans had to choose in advance whether to shoot colour or black and white. With digital, every colour image includes its monochrome equivalent. From time to time, Samoylova shifts to black and white simply to downplay the easy colour vulgarity. More significantly, she also does it to give history the slip: it is not always obvious in this book whether certain images are hers, or by Evans, such is their aesthetic overlap, and the unchanging appearance of parts of Florida. The image credits and titles are to be found at the end of the image sequence, as they were in so many of Evans’s publications.[x] This places the emphasis, first and foremost, on looking and what the images suggest visually. If they give rise to doubts, or gaps in interpretation, these become part of the meaning of the work.
Architecture as Image
Samoylova came to photography through a formal education in architecture and design, in Moscow. Documenting her models of buildings, she saw how photography’s ability to record space is inseparable from its tendency to reinvent it. The medium’s realism has to be balanced with its transformations. The camera flattens space while offering new illusions of it. Architecture was one of Evans’s earliest subjects too, and remained so throughout his career. Like Samoylova, he was fascinated with the camera’s way of describing built form, turning what is photographed into a strong if not always obvious sign of itself. Photographs can permit architecture to be read as an oblique portrait of a society. Buildings, at least in the earlier part of the twentieth century, belonged to their era but were designed to outlive it, to persist into an unknown future. In this sense, the temporal wavelength of architecture is longer and more complex than that of cars and clothes, for example, which have a shorter life and carry their moment more clearly. This is why cars, people and buildings recur in the work of Samoylova and Evans. The time of the image, the time of architecture, and the time of consumer design are all in play.
Florida has a handful of gems of high modern architecture. Perhaps the most notable is the extensive campus that Frank Lloyd Wright designed for Florida Southern College, in Lakeland. Wright worked out eighteen buildings, twelve of which were realised in his lifetime. Samoylova made the trip to see and photograph them. The Evans archive at the Metropolitan Museum of Art lists “131 Views of Modern Architecture, Possibly Florida. 1968 or later”. Samoylova recognized them immediately as the Lakeland campus, and saw that Evans has been attracted to much the same aspects of it. While there is a lot to be gained from seeking out architecture of the highest order, what really interests Samoylova and Evans, however, is the typical and the pragmatic, and what happens to common buildings over time. Compare, for example, the house of the Black pastor and his family photographed by Evans in 1934 with a similar building documented by Samoylova . The first is an occupied home, full of life, yet preserved only by Evans’s image. The second is an artifact of conserved cultural heritage. The structure has already become a kind of photograph, fixed as an image of the past.
Something similar can be said of the ways these photographers approach neo-classical and Greek revival buildings. Evans saw them as stubborn remnants of an older order. In Samoylova’s era, many of them are now tourist sites, restored and manicured. In 1941, Evans stayed at a plantation house in Tallahassee, its rooms rented out by the heir/owner. By 1972, it was on the National Register of Historic Places, and today it is the Grove Museum, fulfilling an important mission as a place to learn about “Florida’s history, from slavery to civil rights”.[xi]
Neo-classical architecture was always a game of faked authenticity. Evans was intrigued by the ways it had come to stand for institutional credibility and officialdom. It was the country’s default architecture of civic buildings, banks and grand homes.[xii] But in Florida he saw it beginning to cut itself loose, entering a stylistic free-for-all. Eventually neo-classicism would become identified as much with formulaic McMansions and shopping malls, which Samoylova inherits as a Florida norm.
Evans had come into photography at a point where images were becoming a ubiquitous part of the urban fabric, in the form of posters, billboards, and commercial signs. For Samoylova, architecture and image have become almost indistinguishable. As the cultural critic Fredric Jameson put it: “The appetite for architecture today… must in reality be an appetite for something else. I think it is an appetite for photography.”[xiii] To photograph a contemporary building is to photograph something that was designed as image, and very often designed to look good in images. Evans saw this coming, but Samoylova has had to find ways to make it all thinkable, ways that might allow her photography of architecture-as-image to be contemplative and critical, rather than complicit. She does this in a manner similar to Evans, keeping pictorial space flattened, and minimizing horizons so that buildings, shop fronts and signage become facades to be read closely. Consider ‘Cuba Libre’. What looks at first like a natural meeting of styles – Mediterranean, Cuban, Anglo-American – is really the thin veneer of an outdoor mall. We are looking at a very corporate attempt to evoke a cultural melting pot in the service of retail and leisure. The ‘Cuba Libre’ café at bottom right and the 1950s-style Havana belle, top left, are joined by a patchwork of architectural elements in fake-worn yellow, reflected blue sky, and that ever-present pink. Samoylova composes her shot to exaggerate the contrivance and invite scrutiny.
At other times, Evans and Samoylova look to the layered development of towns and cities. Here, buildings are understood as part of the rich accumulation of urban scenes. This idea is well expressed by the photographer (and Evans admirer) Stephen Shore:
There is an old Arab saying, ‘The apparent is the bridge to the real.’ For many photographers, architecture serves this function. A building expresses the physical constraints of its materials: a building made of curved I-beams and titanium can look different from one made of sandstone blocks. A building expresses the economic constraints of its construction. A building also expresses the aesthetic parameters of its builder and its culture. This latter is the product of all the diverse elements that make up ‘style’: traditions, aspirations, conditioning, imagination, posturings, perceptions. On a city street, a building is sited between others built or renovated at different times and in different styles. And these buildings are next to still others. And this whole complex scene experiences the pressure of weather and time. This taste of the personality of a society becomes accessible to a camera [xiv]
Making photographs that can describe all this requires a stepping out of time, or at least back from the present moment, all the better to give oneself up to the histories and pressures being observed. This is a general characteristic shared by the work of Evans and Samoylova. Only rarely do their images arrest scenes in motion with a rapid shutter. Observation is slowed to the stoic gaze of the lens, and the accretions of time. It is a photography that stares, grounded and unflinching
Half-dreams, Forgotten Coasts
Across Evans’s photographs there are hints of Florida’s everyday surrealism. An airplane converted into a restaurant. The painted cut-out props of a commercial seaside photographer. A hotel abandoned before it was even completed. Today such scenes are so commonplace in Florida that they are almost tourist photo-opportunities, with their irony wearing thin. Samoylova is circumspect on such places, while acknowledging they are part of what Florida has become. She looks for the less obvious. Mirror Venus is a good example, an image which prompted Lauren Groff to write her delirious short story. Samoylova has also written about it:
In Greek mythology, Venus was the goddess of love, beauty, and fertility. But this Venus is a mirror in a shop window in Miami’s boutique designer district. She hovers pure but blank, in a refracted fantasy of materialism and leisure. My observational photographs often look like collages, bit and pieces put together. But sometimes it’s the world itself that is a collage, particularly the world of consumerism with its kaleidoscopic distractions.[xv]
Mirrors, doubles, reflections and refractions abound in Samoylova’s photographs, and always in the service of a mediated sense of reality. Pink Staircase was shot during a king tide in Hollywood, a city between Miami and Fort Lauderdale. A flooded parking lot is observed as if it were a painting by Giorgio de Chirico, or a backdrop for a visionary movie. The space described by the image is lucid but there is something otherworldly about it. It reminds me of the final scene of The Truman Show (Peter Weir, 1998). Jim Carrey’s character is born and raised unknowingly in a giant TV studio the size of a county, and is filmed by hidden cameras his entire life, for a worldwide audience. Sensing all is not what it seems, he sets sail to escape, until his boat bumps into a painted sky backdrop. It is literally the edge of his world. Nothing had been authentic apart Truman himself. He climbs a staircase to exit the set, and enter a reality for which he is utterly unprepared. Truman’s island life has been a 1950s-looking picket fenced suburbia, named Seahaven. Many of the film’s scenes were actually shot in Seaside, a town in north-west Florida, on what has become known as the Forgotten Coast. The fantasy of middle class, post-war prosperity in remote small-town comfort remains seductive in many parts of the US, particularly Florida. Such places barely feel real. The desire to build and inhabit a protective illusion is so insular, and in such denial, the results cannot quite achieve naturalism. Seahaven/Seaside never shake the bogus quality of the theme park or film set, but this is no barrier for a culture in which authenticity has been reduced to a set of styles, tropes, visual tics and quotations from a mythical past. The artifice of it all is part of the appeal.
The Photographer’s Presence
From time to time, Walker Evans visited his sister on Anna Maria Island, off Florida’s west coast. There in 1968 he made a number of striking photographs in which he allowed his shadow to fall into the foreground. Across his career he had made many images in bright, overhead sun, and his shadow often crept into the bottom of the frame, but he would crop it out when printing, to keep the selfless illusion of what he called the ‘documentary style.’ Even so, a photographer is always present in the world, and by the late 1960s many image makers were embracing and affirming this fact. A shadow can be a compositional device and an indirect record of one’s existence. A not-quite self-portrait. Evans’s shadow pictures are similar to the ones being made at the time by his young friend, Lee Friedlander. With a nod to them both, Samoylova made her own shadow self-portrait, when she came across a discarded wig on scrub ground. Half-Medusa, half vanitas, it is a bold addition to what has now become something of a sub-genre in photography. It also feels like a confidently feminine/feminist gesture in public space. Exploring alone, Samoylova is always having to watch her back, but only rarely does she catch her shadow or reflection with her camera. Moreover, she consciously makes images that are ungendered, outside the easy binaries that might assume there are ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ ways of seeing and photographing. This stance is hard won and takes vigilance, especially in a photographic art culture that still prefers women photographers to make work explicitly about their gendered identity or experience.
On Anna Maria Island, Evans also made paintings in a simple but endearing style. The subjects – roadside and waterside shacks – are familiar Evans territory, and the faux naïve manner in which he painted them has much in common with the vernacular hand-painted signs he loved to photograph and collect. They are also influenced by the painters he admired, such as Ben Shahn, Jacob Lawrence and Mary Faulconer. [xvi] There is always a close relation between Evans’s work and common image practices. Although he is usually associated with the emergence of photographic modernism, his constant adoption and quotation of familiar visual modes make him a more complicated figure, almost a forerunner Pop and Postmodernism. This has taken critics and curators a while to grasp, but it is one of the central reasons why he continues to be influential so deep into the twenty-first century.
Anastasia Samoylova’s paintings are different from Evans’s but no less quotational, mixing bright and loose brushstrokes with collaged photographic fragments of typical Floridian scenes. Layered and intricate, they are reminiscent of the mixed media work of Robert Rauschenberg, who had a studio on Captiva Island, a little south of Anna Maria Island.[xvii]Moreover, as we have seen, even her ‘straight’ images have compositional structures derived as much from avant-garde painting as from documentary photography (the Russian Constructivist Natalia Goncharova is a favourite). In fact, it is instructive to see all of Samoylova’s output in terms of quotation and adoption, even when it appears to be based in direct observation. It is a recognition that vision is always informed by what has been seen before, layered, filtered, veiled.
Picturing one’s way
It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.
Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1891
To cite Wilde’s timeless provocation here may seem almost too obvious, but that is the point. If ever there was a place that courted and confounded judgment by appearance it is Florida. To accept the look of the place, while knowing that its obviousness is the way to deeper understanding, is the challenge Walker Evans and Anastasia Samoylova set for themselves. And in the end, it may be best to see their work not as visual statements made for us, but as the consequence of their own internal struggle to figure out what Florida is, and how to photograph it. Clearly photography is a medium complicit with Florida’s spectacle, with its endless visual seductions and distractions, yet it contains the possibility of so much more. Evans and Samoylova did not presume to bring us the real Florida, whatever that may be. They explored what it was for themselves, in their own moments, under their own complex pressures. The photographs are the results, rich and resonant. We may judge by appearance and learn something of the true mystery of the world.
[i] John Berger, in John Berger and Jean Mohr, A Fortunate Man, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1967.
[ii] See Christopher Knowlton, The Bubble in the Sun. The Florida Boom of the 1920s and How it Brought on the Great Depression, Simon & Schuster, 2020.
[iii] Walker Evans, unfinished letter to Ernestine Evans, Getty Collection (84.XG.963.42).
[iv] Anastasia Samoylova in David Campany ed., The Lives and Loves of Images, Kehrer Verlag, 2020.
[v] See David Campany, ‘Eugène Atget’s Intelligent Documents,’ in Eugène Atget: Photographe de Paris (1930), Errata Editions, 2009; and Berenice Abbott: The Unknown Abbott, Volume 5, U.S. 1, USA, Steidl, 2013. The exhibition North and South: Berenice Abbott’s U.S. Route 1 was presented at The Wolfsonian Museum, Miami, June 9–October 8, 2017.
[vi] See Walker Evans: Ernest Hemingway, Havana, 1933, Michael Brown Rare Books and De Wolfe & Wood, 2017.
[vii] ‘Collector’s Items’, Mademoiselle, May 1963.
[viii] Walker Evans, ‘Photography’ in Louis Kronenberger ed., Quality: Its Image in the Arts, Atheneum, New York 1969, p. 208.
[ix] The man responsible for Miami’s new look was Leonard Horowitz, a furniture designer and window-dresser from New York. He helped establish the Miami Design Preservation League and got the Art Deco neighborhood into the National Registry of Historic Places. The pastel colors were largely Horowitz’s initiative.
[x] In the Evans publications The Crime of Cuba (1933), American Photographs (the 1938 first edition), Let us now Praise Famous Men (1941), The Mangrove Coast (1942), and Many are Called (1966) and Message from the Interior (1966) the images were presented one to a page, or page spread, with not text.
[xii] In 1952, Evans published a withering photo-essay on the official architecture of Washington DC (‘Imperial Washington’, Fortune, February 1952). He noted: “The last, large burst of classicism struck Washington as a direct result of the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. So successful was the mid-western creation in plaster that its chief architects and planners moved on to the capital almost to a man and forever froze the face of the city into its Romanesque Renaissance expression.” See David Campany, Walker Evans: the Magazine Work, Steidl, 2014
[xiii] Fredric Jameson, ‘Spatial equivalents in the world system’ in Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Duke University Press, 1991, pp 97-129.
[xiv] Stephen Shore, ‘Photography and Architecture’ (1997) in Christy Lange et al, Stephen Shore, (Phaidon Press, 2008)
[xvi] Evans was friends and shared a studio with Ben Shahn, introduced Jacob Lawrence to the readership of Fortune magazine (‘In the Heart of the Black Belt’, Fortune, August 1948), and saw his photographs published alongside paintings by Mary Faulconer (‘New England Summer’, Flair, June 1950).
[xvii] Like Evans, Rauschenberg made his name in New York, and knew the city was a trap. While it was becoming the center of North American art, perhaps even world art, it was also losing its connection to the rest of the United States, and becoming a stifling place in which to live a creative life. Although based in New York for much of his life, Evans preferred to shoot in smaller towns and cities. Once Rauschenberg made his name, he moved to Florida. Similarly, Samoylova has found her creative life outside the major metropolises.