Evans, Walker 1903-1975
EVANS, Walker 1903-1975
PERSONAL: Born November 3, 1903, in St. Louis, MO; died April 10, 1975, in New Haven, CT; son of Walker II (an advertising executive) and Jessie Beach (Crane) Evans; married Jane Smith Ninas (divorced, 1955); married Isabelle Böschenstein von Steiger, 1960 (divorced, 1972). Education: Attended Williams College, Williamstown, MA, 1922-23, and the Sorbonne, Paris, France, 1926-27.
CAREER: Photographer. Worked in New York City Public Library, 1923-25; freelance photographer, 1928-65; staff photographer, Farm Security Administration, 1935-37; Fortune magazine, New York, NY, associate editor and photographer, 1945-65; Yale University, New Haven, CT, professor of graphic arts, 1964-74, professor emeritus, 1974-75. Artist in residence, Dartmouth College, 1972. Exhibitions of Evans's work have been held in North America and Europe, beginning in 1932, and include showings at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY; National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa; Robert Schoelkopf Gallery, New York, NY; Galerie Baudoin Lebon, Paris, France; Bibliothéque Royale, Brussels, Belgium; Cronin Gallery, Houston, TX; Grand Central Palace, New York, NY; Art Institute of Chicago, IL; Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; Ferens Art Gallery, Hull, Yorkshire, England; Museum Ludwig, Cologne, Germany; Kluuvin Galleria, Helsinki, Finland; Yale University, New Haven, CT; and other locations.
MEMBER: American Academy of Arts and Sciences (fellow), National Institute of Arts and Letters.
AWARDS, HONORS: Guggenheim fellowships, 1940, 1941, 1959; Carnegie Corporation award, 1962; D.Litt., Williams College, 1968; Mark Rothko Foundation grant, 1973.
Hart Crane, The Bridge, Black Sun Press (New York, NY), 1930.
Carleton Beals, The Crime of Cuba, [Philadelphia, PA], 1933.
James Johnson Sweeney, African Negro Art, Museum of Modern Art (New York, NY), 1935.
James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1941.
J. Edgar Park, Wheaton College Photographs, [Norton, MA], 1941.
Karl Bickel, The Mangrove Coast, [New York, NY], 1942.
Paul Radin and James Johnson Sweeney, African Folk Tales and Sculptures, Bollington Foundation (New York, NY), 1953, revised in two volumes as African Folktales, by Paul Radin, and African Sculpture, by James Johnson Sweeney, Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ), 1970.
Many Are Called, introduction by James Agee, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1966.
Message from the Interior, afterword by John Szarkowsky, Eakins Press (Boston, MA), 1966.
Walker Evans' Photographs for the Farm Security Administration, 1935-1938, edited by Jerald C. Maddox, Da Capo Press (New York, NY), 1973.
Selected Photographs, introduction by Lionel Trilling, [New York, NY], 1974.
I, [New Haven, CT, and Washington, DC], 1978.
Walker Evans: First and Last, Harper & Row (New York, NY), 1978.
Jerry L. Thompson, Walker Evans at Work, Harper & Row (New York, NY), 1978.
Lloyd Fonvielle, Walker Evans, Aperture (New York, NY), 1979.
Walker Evans: Havana, 1933, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1989.
Walker Evans: Amerika, Rizzoli (New York, NY), 1991.
Giles Mora and John T. Hill, Walker Evans: The Hungry Eye, Abrams (New York, NY), 1993.
Cynthia Rylant, Something Permanent (poems), Harcourt (New York, NY), 1994.
Walker Evans: The Brooklyn Bridge, Eakins Press (Boston, MA), 1994.
Judith Keller, Walker Evans: The Getty Museum Collection, J. Paul Getty Museum (Los Angeles, CA), 1995.
Simple Secrets: Photographs from the Collection of Marian and Benjamin Hill, High Museum of Art (Atlanta, GA), 1998.
Andre Codrescu, Walker Evans: Signs, J. Paul Getty Museum (Los Angeles, CA), 1998.
Maria Morris Hambourg and others, Walker Evans, Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, NY), 2000.
Walker Evans: The Lost Work, Arena Editions (Santa Fe, NM), 2000.
Virginia-Lee Webb, Perfect Documents: Walker Evans and African Art, 1935, Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, NY), 2000.
Andre Codrescu, Walker Evans: Cuba, introduction by Judith Keller, J. Paul Getty Museum (Los Angeles, CA), 2001.
Luc Sante, Walker Evans, Phaidon (London, England), 2001.
Christian A. Peterson, Walker Evans: The Collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minneapolis Institute of Arts (Minneapolis, MN), 2003.
Contributor to Quality:, Its Image in the Arts, edited by Louis Kronenberger, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1969; and Wooden Churches: A Celebration, by Rick Bragg, Algonquin, 1999. Collections of Evans's work are maintained at the Modern Museum of Art, New York, NY; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY; Yale University, New Haven, CT; Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, CT; Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA; Library of Congress, Washington, DC; New Orleans Museum of Art; University of New Mexico, Albuquerque; Smithsonian Institute; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; and National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, Ontario.
SIDELIGHTS: Most often remembered for his black-and-white photographs taken of poor families in America during the Great Depression, and collected in the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men with text by James Agee, Walker Evans remains today one of the most important documentary photographers of the twentieth century. Also well known for his series of photos taken of commuters in New York City's subways, Evans was a longtime editor and photographer for Fortune magazine. But although he continued to produce pictures professionally through the 1960s, many critics feel that Evans never again equaled his Depression-Era work; yet even if that had been all he had accomplished in his lifetime, his place as an influential photographer would remain assured. Evans found beauty, interest, irony, and even humor in what most people would consider to be the ordinary, even ugly, aspects of everyday life. As he was quoted by Malcolm Jones in Newsweek as saying, "A garbage can, occasionally, to me at least, can be beautiful.… I lean toward the enchantment, the visual power, of the esthetically rejected object." As Jed Perl described Evans in a New Republic article, "Evans is a master at getting at the classicism of commonness. He is also a master when it comes to the classicism of kitsch. Evans is enraptured by ordinary images. Perhaps even more importantly, he is obsessed with a quotidian way of representing reality."
Evans's first aspiration, however, was to become a novelist, and some critics would later describe the photographer as a storyteller of sorts. For example, Leo Rubinfien, writing in Art in America, called his pictures "literary … in that they are much interested in character—in what kind of person it is that has come into the area of their concern." Evans was drawn to literature as a way of rebelling against his parents and their values; he admired the bohemian lifestyle of certain authors and the characters they depicted, which contrasted with the values of his parents. His father, an advertising executive, was more concerned with his career than with his son, and his mother was also preoccupied with being upwardly mobile socially. Thus left largely to his own devices, his first experience with photography came after the family moved to Toledo, Ohio, in 1916, and Evans began to fiddle with a Kodak Brownie camera. He enjoyed taking pictures of people without their knowing it, and thus began a fascination with catching people in real-life situations. However, by the time he was set to enter Williams College in 1922, his mind was on becoming a writer. Evans was especially interested in French authors such as Gustave Flaubert, Charles Baudelaire, Andre Gide, and Arthur Rimbaud. After dropping out of Williams College he moved to Paris, where he hoped to find some spiritual camaraderie in the American expatriate community. While in Paris, he attended the Sorbonne, and eventually decided that his talents lay more with photography than in writing.
Moving from Paris to New York City in the late 1920s, Evans worked on his photography while earning a paycheck working nights for a brokerage firm. His first publication, titled The Bridge, a collaboration with poet Hart Crane whom he had met in Paris, was released in 1930. Though many young artists struggled to achieve recognition and earn a living, Evans's gifts as a photographer were soon recognized, and in 1931 art patron Lincoln Kirstein gave him an assignment to photograph Victorian architecture in the New York City area. The next year, Evans had his first exhibition at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York City; and in 1933 he was commissioned to photograph historic buildings in New Orleans. His photos commanded a fee of $125 per picture, a huge sum at the time, and he soon traveled on assignments to foreign locales such as Cuba and Tahiti. In 1935, Evans was hired by the federal government's Farm Security Administration to document the struggles of the working class in America. He complemented this work with a 1936 project for Fortune magazine about the country's poor to be written by James Agee; thus began the work on Evans's most acclaimed photographic pieces.
Depicting what would later become regarded as the most striking and enduring images of the Great Depression, Evans and Agee completed a record of the downtrodden that was rejected by the editors at Fortune for being too lengthy for the magazine's needs. Instead, their work was released in 1941's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. But because this book came out just before the United States entered World War II, it did not receive considerable attention at the time. Today, however, it is considered by many to be Evans's masterpiece. As Perl observed, "What is extraordinary about Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is the extent to which Agee and Evans present the hopeless poverty of these families in all its grinding everydayness. The book's enduring power rests with their insistence that the world that they are chronicling is too complex to be described as anything but a collage, a scrapbook; this is a tragedy without conclusion or catharsis." Despite this, Perl added that the photographs in the earlier Walker Evans: American Photographs are more accomplished: "Taken together, the photographs in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men are by no means the most sustained demonstration of Evans's gifts as a photographer; I would give that honor to American Photographs."
Evans had left the Farm Security Administration by 1937, and during World War II he wrote book reviews for Time, a job he enjoyed because it gave him the chance to exercise his still-lingering love for writing. From 1938 to 1941, he also embarked on what is perhaps his second-most-famous endeavor: a series of photographs taken in New York City's subways. Echoing his childhood love of taking photographs of people surreptitiously, Evans concealed his camera in his coat as he snapped pictures of subway passengers. This work was later published in his 1966 book Many Are Called.
After the war, Evans was hired by Fortune to be a photographer and associate editor. He remained at Fortune for the next twenty years, and here was given considerable leeway in choosing his assignments. "Evans's Fortune projects reflected his intensifying interest in the discarded object," commented Afterimage writer Melissa Rachleff. "Evans was interested in the aesthetic possibilities of juxtaposing the past with the present. In several photo essays he recorded specific objects that were becoming increasingly anachronistic in the era of mass production." Rachleff further observed, "To some, Evans's interest in these topics might have seemed nostalgic. Upon further consideration, they may represent his interest in the effects of current cultural transition."
Evans joined the faculty at Yale University to teach graphic arts during the last decade of his life. Meanwhile, he continued to take photographs, even taking color photos on assignment for Fortune, something he had shunned for most of his career as being vulgar compared to black-and-white photography. He became interested, too, in collecting such items as old postcards and rusty street signs, which he also photographed along with kitchen utensils and other ordinary objects. During the last years of his life, he resorted to using a Polaroid camera when illness made it too difficult for him to operate a professional-quality camera.
Though Evans's later photographs are generally considered less important than his earlier works, his reputation increased after his death in 1974. In 2000 a retrospective of his work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City confirmed his stature as one of the leading photographers of the twentieth century. "By declining to beautify or dramatize," wrote Rubinfien, "each of Evans's best photographs forces its subject to speak for itself, even to talk too much, until its vulgarity, pathos, tawdriness, hysteria—whatever its essential qualities are—begin to yell from the page."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Volume 44, Gale (Detroit, MI). 2002.
Contemporary Photographers, 3rd edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.
Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd edition, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1998.
Mora, Gilles, Walker Evans: The Hungry Eye, Abrams (New York, NY), 1993.
Rathbone, Belinda, Walker Evans: A Biography, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1995.
Thompson, Jerry L., The Last Years of Walker Evans, Thames & Hudson (New York, NY), 1997.
Afterimage, January-February, 1996, Melissa Rachleff, "Scavenging the Landscape: Walker Evans and American Life," p. 7; January-February, 2002, "Command CV: A Legend by Default," p. 6; winter, 2002, Roberto Tejada, "Documentary and Anti-Graphic: Three at the Julien Levy Gallery, 1935," p. 15.
American Heritage, December, 1994, review of Something Permanent, p. 126.
Art in America, December, 2000, Leo Rubinfien, "The Poetry of Plain Seeing," p. 74.
Economist, January 29, 2000, "Against Nature," p. 98.
Library Journal, September 15, 1998, Nathan Ward, review of Simple Secrets: Photographs from the Collection of Marian and Benjamin A. Hill, p. 71; April 1, 2000, Michael Rogers, review of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, p. 136; June 1, 2000, David Bryant, review of Walker Evans, p. 120.
Los Angeles Magazine, September, 2001, "Democratic Eye," p. 140.
New Criterion, March, 2000, Daniel Mark Epstein, "The Passion of Walker Evans," p. 14.
New Republic, February 14, 2000, Jed Perl, "On Art—In the American Grain," p. 31.
Newsweek, July 5, 1999, "Dilettante, Documentarian, Genius," p. 59; January 31, 2000, Malcolm Jones, "An American Eye: New Exhibits Celebrate the Austere Beauty of Photographer Walker Evans's World," p. 62.
Publishers Weekly, January 24, 2000, "Let Us Now Praise Evans and Agee," p. 307; August 27, 2001, review of Walker Evans: Cuba, p. 75.*