LUXLIFE 2017 | March 2017
In Visual Arts
Thirty-two black and white photographs punctuated the first edition of Karl Bickel’s exploratory exposé of Florida’s western edge, The Mangrove Coast, published in 1942, each taken by the now-seminal totem of photography, Walker Evans. The first to have a solo exhibition devoted to a photographer’s work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1938, Evans came to Sarasota in 1941 at the behest of the book’s publishing company, Coward-McCann—where his friend and iconic female journalist Ernestine Evans worked. There happens to be no record of correspondence between Bickel and Evans despite their shared tome, but as the story goes: Evans, who had visited Florida a few times before and many times afterward, took the assignment to make the photographs for The Mangrove Coast at a time when he dearly needed the money—that is to say that he took it reluctantly. He had just married his first wife, Jane Smith Ninas, the trip doubling as a six-week honeymoon—the pair traversed the state from Jacksonville to Cape Sable, Sarasota to Tallahassee, meandering with his Rolleiflex camera and carte blanche to capture what he believed to be the texture of mid-20th-century Florida. On that trip, Evans and his wife strolled the fine quartz sand of Sarasota on the day that Pearl Harbor came under fire; his photographs of palm trees marking the erosion taking place along Florida’s coast reflect both the somber moment in the country’s history and Evans’ peculiar relationship to the landscape, showing his adept proclivity for capturing the character of a place.
Demonstrated in all of his work and echoed in the reception of Evans’ photographs, there remains a sincere realism as poignant today as it was in his time—if not increasingly so. While in Florida, Evans wrote in letters how much he adored the state for its gamut of high and low culture. In his photographs, threads of solidarity are revealed in his ability to weave together all parts of the quotidian doldrums that make up a sense of place: the banal and the prosaic mingle with the extraordinary and strange.
You find businessmen and fishermen, resort tourists and locals, alligator farms and circus culture mixed together. The spectrum of high and low spans trailer parks to opulent mansions such as John and Mable Ringling’s Cá d’Zan. The everyday ins and outs that attracted Evans’ eye etched a photographic record in history of a vernacular that would otherwise be lost to time, uncataloged archives or local lore. He was an early proponent of photographs being understood with cumulative meaning, setting the course for the 20th-century canon of photography—few would argue that any other photographer has had such an indelible influence as Evans: his work has influenced the practices of iconic American photographers William Christenberry and William Eggleston among many others and still remains as a critical waypoint on the arc of photography.
Bickel and Evans’ reputations both preceded this Florida project. Bickel—a former newspaperman and president of the United Press International bureau—retired to Sarasota and fought fiercely to protect the area. He implored scholars to study the area’s pre-Colombian history and concurrently advocated for the burgeoning tourism economy (he was a member of Sarasota’s first housing board which strove to save the area from overdevelopment). But Evans’ reputation in 1941 was only beginning to take shape, following the publication of the now-seminal book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, an incomparable and unprecedented book he worked on with revered poet and novelist James Agee. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men holds both Evans’ and Agee’s name on the title page and the book soon became accepted as one of the most well-respected social documentary portraits of the day—remaining the yardstick by which many are measured—showcasing an exceptional marriage of photography and journalism.
Unfortunately, in 1941 when Let Us Now Praise Famous Men was published, it fell flat, only selling 600 copies. It later attained immense cultural and critical cache, the photographs and prose coming to be known as both Agee and Evans’ seminal work and in many ways overshadowing much of their work before and after.
In Sarasota, Evans focused on a number of sites, but the through line becomes clear in his apparent interest in the town’s architecture, especially the idiosyncratic fragments of the Ringling family’s presence in Sarasota—the never-finished Ritz Carlton on the south end of Longboat Key solemnly looking out over New Pass where the Chart House now stands, the uninhabited Cá d’Zan quietly settling in after the death of John Ringling, the municipal trailer park in Sarasota where many tourists and the recent influx of carnies stayed, along with the Ringling Circus quarters (just moved to Sarasota from Bridgeport, CT that year). Within the collection that sprang from this 1941 trip, an assortment of portraits of Bickel lie dormant, rare evidence that the two did, in fact, meet—in one, Bickel sits at the front of a rowboat, clad in a suit and hat. In the trailer parks, Evans photographed a number of the mobile homes, some trucks with awnings turned moving home, some more conventional trailers. One specific image stands alone—a truly Evans-esque photo of a resident poised in a rocking chair on the porch of his trailer. Magazine in hand, the man’s deadpan stare softly trails off to the left of the frame, a sign hanging dead-center made up of two rectangular pieces of wood bearing the phrase “KUM—ANGO” on respective pieces, the letters seemingly made of white shells common to the area. Flowerbeds flank the porch’s perimeter, the right awning post broken by a bromeliad, the canvas awning itself strewn with pine needles. While all of these photographs speak to the way Evans fashioned an understanding of vernacular photography, this one bears it all with exacting eloquence.
At the Ringling Circus quarters, which one could visit for 25 cents at the time, Evans took to the animal cages, photographing lions, elephants, giraffes and baboons. Images of a caged baboon and a torn circus poster both have an unsettling quality about them; the baboon’s indifference is on display, while the poster dissembles the thin veneer of the circus at a time when many young people were off to war—the big top held as one form of respite amidst fears mounting abroad. Evans paid close attention to the circus bandwagons and the ornate relief carvings that adorned them. In those photographs, you see worn wood, the face of a figure shorn, the once-saturated pigments that cover the surface all but gone from years of traveling, the wagons once used to announce the circus as they rolled into town. In some photographs, you see the golden years of the circus (1870–1914) on display even through the warm hues of silver gelatin prints absent of color, harkening back to tropes of early photography—wagons and carts that Eugene Atget photographed in Paris 30 years earlier, and even Evans’ photographs of street vendor carts in Cuba eight years before.
Of all the photographs Evans made in Sarasota, an inevitable tinge of the Ringling family—owners of nearly a quarter of the land in Sarasota proper—is tied to many of the places he visited, and thus, the images he captured. Besides their places in The Mangrove Coast, three of those photos made an appearance in Harper’s Bazaar in 1942, illustrating an article concerning the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus—otherwise, they have been left only to those who seek them out. In the pages of The Mangrove Coast, Bickel recorded and elucidated the past of the west coast of Florida in a general sense, from moonshining and Spanish explorers to the dawn of tarpon angling and the Ringling estate—the prose not low-lying but not scholarly by any means. The epilogue appended to the book spoke to the troubles that the area would come to face, but Evans’ photographs painted a different picture. Bickel described Sarasota as a place for “the businessmen who have called it a day,” whereas Evans presented an inimitable spirit the place possessed, conjuring up his observation of high and low with blue-collar homes next to the exorbitant decadence along the shores. He turned to murals and signs, nuanced bits in the landscape, architecture forlorn and mislaid, postcards foreshadowing the area’s inextricable relationship to tourism and commerce—he wryly documented how this place is exemplary of Mark Twain’s maxim: “Truth is stranger than fiction.”
“That clash of cultures seemed to appeal to him,” says Chris Jones, curator of works on paper at The Ringling. “The odd mélange.” Evans’ photographs are neither maudlin nor saccharine, but rather forthright, eschewing what some thought of Florida—a peninsula dotted with roadside attractions and tchotchkes. In this collection of images, Evans’ aesthetic galvanized, forming the links in a metaphorical chain that would come to be understood as demonstrative of one of the masters of photography, placing Evans into a league of his own.
Jeffrey Rosenheim, curator in charge and steward of the Evans archive at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, notes the lack of a strong relationship forged between the words and pictures in The Mangrove Coast—apparently, Evans vehemently dismissed the idea of illustrating it and admitted to never reading it. In the second edition, the photographs were removed—even Evans’ frontispiece disappeared. Yet, despite the miniscule record of collaboration between Evans and Bickel, an incomparable insight into a place and time remains—an oft-forgotten kernel that one of photography’s most revered practitioners spent time in Sarasota. Later, Evans’ sister and brother-in-law bought a home on Anna Maria Island, and he visited them often to escape the biting cold of his northern home. There he made color photographs, mostly abstract compositions of signs that came to be the dénouement of his oeuvre, linking photography to the idea of memory. Fragments of these reveries can be found in his work from 1941: see a mural Evans shot of sea-divers collecting sponges off the coast of Tarpon Springs.
Long before visiting Sarasota, in 1934 Evans was commissioned to photograph a luxury hotel near Hobe Sound on the east coast and speaks in letters of his fondness for the state. “Florida is ghastly and very pleasant where I am, away from the cheap part,” he writes. “Me I play tennis and drink ice tea in grateful seclusion.” Of the photographs Evans made here, Jones muses: “There’s something distinctly Florida about what he tapped into, something about the ecology, the people who end up here and the vernacular culture that he came across.”