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Friday, July 8, 2022

View Camera Howler, James Curtis

Ooops, I forgot a diagram earlier. The remarks on house layout below should make more sense now.

I am, for reasons, re-reading James Curtis' book Mind's Eye, Mind's Truth in which Curtis says a remarkable amount of unsupported stuff about Walker Evans, and ran across this gem regarding a photo which appears in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men of an interior shot of the Gudger (Burroughs) house:

He [Evans] began by taking some 35mm. shots from the from the kitchen doorway, looking into the room, but soon discovered that from this point of view he would have a difficult time controlling the light with his view camera. He solved the problem by using the special technical features of his equipment. He set up his tripod in the doorway directly opposite the kitchen door. From that vantage point, he could record the washstand on the outside kitchen wall, and the interior of the kitchen itself. By sliding the front of his camera sideways, he could look directly into the kitchen without having the kitchen window in his picture. In short, he moved the entire scene off center to avoid inclusion of an unwanted light source in his photograph.

At this point we're a little bit "huh?" so let's look at the picture now:

I have to admit I am not seeing any obvious front-standard movements here, it's just a camera placed in a doorway (you can see the doorframe of the near doorway as a white vertical plank on the left edge) looking across a hall through another doorway. You can see that there is a window in the other room, probably about on the right edge of the frame, concealed behind a clapboard wall.

A front-standard slide could have provided this view with the clapboard and so on all squared up, by pointing the camera directly across the breezeway for squareness, and then sliding, but Evans has not done that here, none of the boards are square to the frame.

This is just a guy standing in the right spot with a camera.

Curtis goes on. At this point it should be noted that James Agee, who described this house, does in fact place the doorway Evans is standing in directly opposite the kitchen doorway.

... Evans's manipulations distort the architectural design of the Burroughs house. On several occasions, Agee commented on the placement of doorways, noting that those opening onto the breezeway were located opposite one another.

But Curtis is just wrong here, and Agee is too. A view camera movement cannot make two doorways directly aligned appear misaligned in this way, it's simply not a thing. The doorways are not aligned.

A closer reading of the text Agee wrote would have in fact thrown this claim of alignment into question anyways, Agee's description of the layout of the house is inconsistent, and if you're attentive to his placement of the doors as he describes each room you see quickly that they cannot in fact be opposite one another. Each is more or less centered in its wall, but one wall is 12 feet or so long and the other more like 7 feet.

The actual layout of the house is something like this, with two 12x12 foot bedrooms on the left side of the hallway/breezeway (it is open to the world at both ends), a 12x12 storeroom on the right with a 12x7 (or thereabouts, Agee says it's "about half the size") attached behind the storeroom. Evans is standing more or less at the red dot, and he had his camera pointed this. The offending window is at the blue dot.

This layout and the misalignment of the doors is confirmed by various other photos which I think Curtis had access to. He refers often to a catalog that allegedly contains all the FSA photos by Evans. The modern online catalog might, however, be more complete, I have not examined the book Curtis cites. See this rear view of the house, though:

We can see the breezeway, and a doorway under the shed-roof over the end of the breezeway. This is the doorway Evans set his camera in, and you can see that it's pretty close to lined up with the rear wall of the kitchen (the smaller room). You can see a pail on the washstand which is against the kitchen wall in the breezeway. Wherever the kitchen door is, it cannot directly face the bedroom door, because that latter directly faces the washstand.

In any case, the idea that somehow Evans distorted the house layout with camera movements is simply bonkers.

(I think? I mean, can you think of some way the two doorways actually could be squarely facing one another, and yet that picture be produced with creative camera movement?)

Curtis seems to me, for this and other reasons, to have been thoroughly unqualified to perform the kinds of detailed analysis his book is based on. Which is kind of sad.


  1. As a long time view camera photographer, this looks to me like a simple photograph made from a slight angle. Nothing fancy or tricky going on. I'm not even sure that the camera Walker Evans would have been using at the time had side to side shift capability. If he used shift the adjustments would have been fairly minor, more a matter of refining the composition than anything.

  2. There are two common photos that Evans took from the bedroom door; I was given a LofC catalog of Evans' FSA work back in the '70s and from it I ordered no. LC-USF342-8132A, "Washroom in the Dog Run of Floyd Burrough's Home," the picture taken straight at the washstand and towel. Back then you could get an 8x10 silver print from the Library for about $10!!! Wish I had taken better care of it, but I look at it every day.
    The picture you are discussing (I don't know Curtis' book, and thank god never tried to read 'Let Us Now Praise ...') is no. LC-USF342-8133A and usually mentions the kitchen in its title. From the thumbnails in my catalog it looks like that one, the view into the kitchen, was taken first, and then he stepped back a bit into the bedroom for a wider view and aimed directly across the breezeway at the wonderful composition against that wall.
    You no doubt have seen Errol Morris's wonderful discussion of the alarm clock that Evans may or may not have placed on the fireplace mantel there that day, in 'Believing is Seeing'. Such important stuff to get settled, dammit.

    1. You're having a go at me in that last paragraph, right?

      That is in fact the subject of the paper I'm pulling together right now. I'm finally writing it up without swearwords, and with footnotes, for something like proper publication.

  3. I don’t think the shed door is aligned with the corner of the house. The roof over the entrance to the breezeway clearly goes beyond the shed door, but at the connection to the house is obscured by the corner, meaning the corner extends further than on your diagram.

    Also, considering the shadows of the furniture in the kitchen there seem to be two windows, another on the far side wall.

    Evans may have shifted the camera but the right side of the shed door may have prevented enough correction to correctly align the kitchen entrance door.

    Omer Claiborne

    1. My diagram is intended as an approximation only, to help the reader orient themselves in the house, and to illustrate the non-alignment of the doors.

  4. The act of photography offers few, if any technical footholds for a reviewer because, at the end of the day, we're talking about manipulating a mechanical device, reducible to (literally) point-and-click. What then is the appeal?