PAUL D. CHAPMAN
It was 1973 and I was a junior at Rice enrolled in Geoff Winningham’s Introduction to Photography class. In October we took a field trip to Austin to hear Walker Evans speak at the University of Texas. It was a weeknight and I had an economics exam the next day, but I couldn’t pass up a chance to meet one of the last living pioneers of American photography. I promised myself that I would study until the lecture – a promise made more difficult to keep when my classmates decided to kill time by going skinny dipping at Hippie Hollow on Lake Travis. There was a very cute girl in my class named Connie that I would have loved to see naked!
After a few hours of studying, I decided to get something to eat before the lecture and walked to a restaurant called The Nighthawk just off Guadalupe. As I walked up to the restaurant, an old guy with a white beard walked up from the other direction and went in ahead of me. He looked a lot like Walker Evans, but I thought it was highly unlikely that Walker Evans, famous photographer and tonight’s speaker, would be walking alone around Austin and having dinner by himself. Where was his entourage? Where was his camera? Wouldn’t Geoff or Garry Winogrand, who was teaching photography at UT, have offered to take him out? I followed him in and sat next to him at the counter. I’ll never forget what he ordered. He asked the waitress to bring him a cup of hot water, and he said to make it “boiling hot”. That was a first for me. I assumed it was for tea, but I can’t remember actually seeing him put a tea bag in his cup.
I ordered a steak dinner and then turned and asked if he was Walker Evans. He seemed very surprised to be recognized and said “Why yes, I am.” I told him that I liked his work, and that I had just driven from Houston to Austin with Geoff’s photography class to see him. He said that he was flattered that we had gone to the trouble and asked if I intended to be a photographer. I told him that I loved photography but didn’t think that I wanted to be a commercial photographer. I told him that I did want to learn to take good photographs and added that I liked the goals I had recently read in a book for our class. Someone had written that their goal was for their photographs to be “literate, authoritative and transcendent.”
He immediately said, “Moi.”
I said, “What?”
He again said, “Moi.”
I again said, “What?”
Then a frustrated Walker Evans said, “Moi, me, I was the one who wrote that!” And then I remembered that it was him, and that we had specifically discussed it in class, and I felt like a total idiot for not remembering. How could I have forgotten? He laughed and appeared to be very amused by the fact that I had just unknowingly quoted him, so I thought I should take the opportunity to ask him if he felt he had accomplished his goals. He chuckled and after a pause said, “Why don’t you ask me that tonight?” I told him that I would. Then he asked, “What was that third one again?” I said “transcendent”, and he said “Right!” By now he had finished his hot tea (or water?). He said, “Goodbye, see you tonight,” and left. I finished my steak dinner with Texas toast and went to meet my class thinking that I had certainly been rewarded for staying behind and studying.
When I caught up with my class I asked one of the guys in my class if they really had gone skinny dipping and he laughed and pointed out that they all had dry clothes on. We walked to the lecture hall and on the way I told them my story. They couldn’t believe it! Then we met up with Geoff and I told him what had happened and he couldn’t believe it either. Geoff had to leave us to go join Garry on the stage and we took our seats in the hall. Garry gave an introduction and out came my new friend Walker. They showed some slides of his work, which was an incredible waste of time because we all knew his work and wanted to hear him speak. Walker made a few comments during and after the slide show, and then they opened it up for questions. It was horrible! The room was mostly filled with UT photography students and in spite of Garry Winogrand’s tremendous talent they appeared to be much more interested in technology than fine art photography. The students asked him ridiculous questions like, “Do you use filters?” It was as if we had Picasso in the room and they were asking him what brand of brushes he used!
I put my hand up to ask my question and had kept it up for what seemed like a very long time when a woman, apparently some sort of caregiver, decided that he was getting tired and ended the talk. I was crushed! I had let him down and left him fielding those ridiculous technical questions rather than giving him a chance to answer something meaningful. I wondered if he had been scanning the crowd for me in desperation. He died a year and a half later, on April 10, 1975. I never got an answer to my question but I like to think that he would have said yes.