Book Bag: ‘Walker Evans: Last Photographs & Life Stories’ by Michael Lesy; ‘Occupying Massachusetts: Layers of History on Indigenous Land’ by Sandra Matthews

  • Walker Evans, “Self-Portrait,” 1930-1934. Copyright Walker Evans Archive and The Metropolitan Museum of Art Courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art/Blast Books

  • Walker Evans, “Bud Fields, Hale County, Alabama, summer 1936.” This one of numerous portraits Evans made of poor tenant farmers in the U.S. South that were featured in the 1941 book “Now Let Us Praise Famous Men.” Image from Library of Congress/courtesy Blast Books

  • Walker Evans, “Michael Lesy,” November 1973. Copyright Walker Evans Archive and The Metropolitan Museum of Art Image courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art/Blast Books

  • On Nipmuc homelands. Indigenous ceremonial stones on state forest land, date unknown. 2020 Photo by Sandra Matthews

  • From “Occupying Massachusetts,” on Nipmuc and Pocumtuck homelands, Charlemont, 2017. Photo by Sandra Matthews

  • On Pennacook Abenaki homelands. Gill, also known as Peskeompskut, 2019 Photo by Sandra Matthews

Staff Writer
Published: 11/4/2022 2:32:51 PM

Walker Evans: Last
Photographs & Life Stories
By Michael Lesy; Blast Books

Walker Evans, one of the great American documentary photographers of the 20th century, would seem to be a natural attraction for Michael Lesy, the photographic historian and writer who’s published a number of historical photo collections and books on U.S. history and culture.

It turns out that Lesy, a former professor of literary journalism at Hampshire College, actually met Evans back in 1973, when Evans was just a few years from his death and Lesy was about to start teaching at Yale University for a year.

That’s the starting point for “Walker Evans: Last Photographs & Life Stories,” a short, unconventional and affectionate biography of Evans that looks at the relationships he forged with a number of people in his life, especially in the 1930s when he first made his mark as a photographer, documenting rural life during the Great Depression.

Using some of Evans’ well-known photos, circa late 1920s to early 1940s, as well as Polaroid photos Evans took in the early 1970s (he died in 1975 at age 71), Lesy also offers a snapshot of his own relationship to the famous photographer, which began on an odd and unexpected note.

As Lesy recounts, he was sitting in the office of Yale University’s department chair of American Studies in late summer 1973 — Lesy was in his late 20s at the time — waiting to sign some papers for his new teaching position, when an elderly man “in fine tweed jacket, frail, with a white beard, shuffled into the office.”

The Yale professor’s secretary, Rose, offered the gentleman a cup of tea and introduced the two men to one another. Evans, in turn, pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and, knowing he had Lesy’s attention, carefully unfolded it to reveal a flattened Coke can. “Very nice,” he said to Lesy with a “small, sly grin.”

“Which is how we met,” Lesy writes.

Lesy, who lives in Amherst, describes how he came to know Evans, who also taught at Yale, during the following year, and how Evans introduced him to his friends and engaged him in serious discussions about photography. At the time, Lesy had just published his first book, “Wisconsin Death Trip,” a collection of late 19th century photos of rural Wisconsin, with accompanying essays and old news clips.

Evans’ interest in him and his respect for Lesy’s sensibility as a student of photography and as an artist touched him deeply, he writes: “I felt as if I’d just been admitted to a club with very few members.”

Lesy explores some of the basic background of Evans’ life — born in the Midwest to an affluent family, he graduated from Philips Academy in Andover and also spent a year at Williams College — but he profiles him largely by profiling the men and women Evans befriended, such as the writer and journalist James Agee, who had an impact in making Evans who he was.

Evans and Agee would collaborate on the seminal 1941 book “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” in which Evans’ photos and Agee’s essays chronicled the lives of poor tenant farmers in the U.S. South during the Great Depression.

Another influence on Evans was his friend and New York City roommate from the early 1930s, Paul Grotz, a German immigrant and fellow photographer who shared Evans’ improvisational approach to that work.

“Everywhere they went, in cities, towns, parks, and fields, they made photographs together, sometimes in harmony, sometimes in counterpoint,” Lesy writes. “Without intending to, they began a tradition that American photographers have followed ever since: pack your bags, grab your camera, get in your car — and go!”

Evans, born in 1902, had a tough go of things as he got older, Lesy notes, with serious health problems brought on in part by heavy drinking and smoking; he also burned through a couple of marriages. But he continued to work late into his career, photographing all manner of things, including flattened soda cans and other “objects on their way to oblivion. He photographed them in their passage.”

“Wonder and scrutiny produced the portraits Walker made in his prime,” Lesy notes. “Wonder and scrutiny, suffused with desire and dread, produced the photographs he made in his last years.”

And if, Lesy writes, Evans was shaped by the violence and hardship of the era in which he came of age — World War I, a worldwide influenza pandemic, the Great Depression — he still found humanity in his photos: “He photographed objects as if they were people and people as if they were souls … The still silence of his images was transcendental. Always he remembered the skull beneath the skin.”

Occupying Massachusetts: Layers of History on Indigenous Land
Photos by Sandra Matthews
Text by David Brule and Suzanne Gardinier
George F. Thompson

In her new book, Northampton photographer Sandra Matthews set out to capture a different kind of landscape — a meditation on how histories are written, and how they can change over time.

In “Occupying Massachusetts,” Matthews, a former professor of photography and film at Hampshire College, photographs a wide range of structures — crumbling old houses, woodpiles, sheds, gravestones and stone walls — as a means of looking at how Native peoples who first lived on these lands were pushed aside by white colonists.

As she writes in an introduction, “To the extent that the United States can offer a haven for people outside its borders — as it did to my own immigrant parents — that offer is built, tragically, on the original violent displacement of Indigenous peoples in Massachusetts and throughout the nation.”

Traveling across the Valley and to parts of eastern Massachusetts, Matthews also finds numerous historical markers, installed at different times, that reflect how relations between colonists and Indigenous peoples — including the Nipmuc, Pocumtuck and Abenaki in the Valley — once played out.

A monument in Deefield originally installed in 1867, for instance, commemorates the site of a fort dating to the 17th century that was a key installation for “the defense of the early settlers against the attacks of the savage Indians,” as part of the marker’s text reads.

By contrast, a small memorial in Plymouth, installed in 1998, notes that Native Americans since 1970 have gathered in the town every Thanksgiving for a national day of mourning, to remember what they lost to white settlement — but also to honor their ancestors and to recognize the continued “struggles of Native peoples to survive today.”

In addition to Matthews’ sometimes moody but expressive photographs, David Brule, a Valley historian and activist for Native causes, contributes a thoughtful essay, “Occupying Indigenous Land: Finding a Way Forward,” and poet Suzanne Gardinier, a Massachusetts native, offers “Notes of a Settler Daughter,” a 33-point reflection on her connection to the state’s past.

One particular point: One of Gardinier’s distant ancestors was John Lyman, who in May 1676 led some of the settlers who killed an estimated 415 Native people, mostly women and children, at what is now known as Turners Falls.

“Every time I hear the words ‘American values’ I think of this,” she writes.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at

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