John Tagg: "Knocking Around between Money, Sex, and Boredom": Walker Evans in Havana and New York City

Black and white photograph of an old bed in a small room.
Hudson Street Boarding House Detail, New York (1931–33), film negative, 6.5" x 8.5". photo / Walker Evans / Walker Evans Archive, the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Two men in the front row of an auditorium talking, one standing and one seated.
Department of art chair and associate professor Michael Ashkin (at right) talks with guest critic John Tagg prior to Tagg's lecture. William Staffeld / AAP
Head and shoulders view of man in an auditorium, with people in the background.
John Tagg, SUNY Distinguished Professor of Art History at Binghamton University, during his introduction in the Abby and Howard Milstein Auditorium. William Staffeld / AAP
Man standing at lecturn reading from a text.
John Tagg during his lecture in Milstein Hall. William Staffeld / AAP
Man with glasses looking up while talking in a dark room.
John Tagg lecturing in Milstein Hall. William Staffeld / AAP

Looking at forms of photographic practice not previously considered part of the history of photography, John Tagg writes about photography not as a self-contained medium but as a complex apparatus whose social effects and effects of meaning are multiple and diverse. From here, his interests have extended to the ways in which we construct histories of cultural technologies and visual regimes and to the range of theoretical debates that, since the 1970s, have transformed the methodologies of art history. Curator of the influential 1979 Hayward Gallery exhibition, Three Perspectives on Photography, Tagg's books include The Burden of Representation, Essays on Photographies and Histories, Grounds of Dispute: Art History, Cultural Politics and the Discursive Field, and The Disciplinary Frame: Photographic Truths and the Capture of Meaning. His writings have been translated into more than 15 languages. Born in the northeast of England, Tagg lives and works in Upstate New York, where he is SUNY Distinguished Professor of Art History at Binghamton University.


In a short memoir of his arrival in Havana written in July 1933 following his return from a 30-day trip to Cuba, Walker Evans thought back on his first meeting with the Cuban journalist José Antonio Fernandez de Castro. It was a meeting that had left him wondering, "Is this man knocking around between money, sex, and boredom, or has he something else up his sleeve?" Evans's question applies just as aptly to his own life at this time, raising issues largely kept at bay in writings on Evans that have an undeniable if hard to focus relationship to the understanding of his photographic work from this period. Moving between Havana and New York City, Tagg asks about the passage between work and biography, but also about the conjunction of sex and work and what is secured by the refusal to speak about it when looking at photographs by Evans.