Walker Evans (1903–1975) was one of the great photographers of the twentieth century, a pivotal figure in establishing the documentary arts movement in the United States, and among the signal artists responsible for fixing the exact look of the Depression for subsequent generations.
He was born Walker Evans III on November 3, 1903, in St. Louis, and moved to Kenilworth, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, in 1908, and to Toledo, Ohio, in 1915. A sensitive but indifferent student, Evans suffered his education in a series of mostly private boarding schools, including the Loomis Institute in Connecticut, Mercersbury Academy in Pennsylvania, and briefly, Philips Andover Academy in Massachusetts. Following a rejection from Yale University, he began and ended his university career with a single semester at Williams College in Massachusetts in December 1923.
After a number of clerical jobs in New York City and a renovative thirteen-month stay in Paris, Evans returned to New York City in 1927 and began the study and practice of the camera in earnest. For the next decade and a half, he engaged in a remarkable string of publications, exhibitions, and field trips that constitute not only the most fecund period of his creative life, but also one of the indelible landmarks in the history of American photography. Starting in 1931 and for the next several years, Evans conducted a photographic study of the vanishing Late-Victorian architecture, mostly in New England. In 1933, the Museum of Modern Art presented "Walker Evans: Photographs of 19th Century Homes," which according to biographer James R. Mellow was "the first one man photographic exhibition mounted by a major museum in the United States" (Mellow 1999, p. 624). In Havana, Cuba (1933), Evans documented the social terrain under the dictatorship of Gerado Machado in thirty-one illustrations for the radical journalist Carleton Beal's text The Crime of Cuba. Beginning in 1935 and for the next two years, Evans produced a sweeping catalog of the American scene in a series of field trips, mostly in the southern and central regions, as an information specialist for the photographic unit of the historical section of the Resettlement Administration (later the Farm Security Administration), a unit which ultimately produced some 270,000 photographs, including the work of photographers like Dorothea Lange, Ben Shahn, Carl Mydans, and Arthur Rothstein. On loan to Fortune magazine in the summer of 1936, he made an excursion to Hale County, Alabama, with the writer James Agee; Evans's photographs and Agee's text would become the classic study of three tenant families, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941). In 1938, before embarking on a three-year project of subway portraits with a hidden camera (eventually published in 1966 as Many Are Called) he attained national prominence with the Museum of Modern Art's exhibition "Walker Evans: American Photographs," a summary statement of more than a decade's work, and his single most famous collection.
An Evans composition was the result of both a contrarian spirit and a deliberated aesthetic that planted itself in opposition to the dominant photographic trends in the first quarter of the century; specifically, the mystical aestheticism of Alfred Stieglitz, the commercial gloss and celebrity portraiture of Edward Steichen, the staged theatrics of Margaret Bourke-White, and even the machine-age formalism of Laszlo Mholy Nagy (of which precocious examples can be found in Evans's early experiments). Against these, his taste ran to the immediacy of raw fact, the unadorned directness of non- or even anti-art: newsreels, tabloid journalism, and the home snapshot. An Evans photo can disarm the casual eye in its avoidance of romance or prettification, frippery or melodrama, its freedom from overt forms of camera rhetoric and embellishment. Actually the restraint of the shot belies a fierce distillate of mental energy, an astringent appreciation of form, and a personal preference for the poetics of entropy and depletion, the harmonics of disarray and adventitions moments. Evans's characteristic subjects were torn posters and billboards cropped with a surrealist wit; shop fronts scrabbled with a patchwork of graffiti and rusty slogans; gas stations, junk yards, and railway depots; dusty vistas of replicated housing and stretch landscapes of smoking factory and clapboard shanty; aging Victorian homes, peeling Greek Revival buildings, and the chipped framewood of Black Baptist churches; and the faces and figures of the anonymous caught unguarded in the nick of an interior event. Evans's treatment of the forms of neglect and the scourings of time coincided almost exactly, whether by accident or design, with the look and fact of the ongoing social crisis of the Great Depression, and become its representative expression.
Starting in 1945, Evans spent twenty years as a full-time staff photographer for Fortune magazine, and another eight years (1964-1972) as professor of graphic design at the Yale School of Art and Architecture. Throughout the last phase of his career, he never stopped collecting penny postcards or roadside bric-a-brac, or working obsessively with a Polaroid color camera, with which he produced more than two thousand photographs before his death on April 10, 1975, in New Haven, Conneticut.
Agee, James, and Walker Evans. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. 1960.
Beals, Carlton. The Crime of Cuba. 1933.
Evans, Walker. American Photographs. 1938.
Evans, Walker. Many Are Called. 1966.
Evans, Walker. Walker Evans. 1971.
Hambourg, Maria Morris; Jeff L. Rosenheim; Douglas Elkund; and Mia Finemon. Walker Evans. 2000.
Mellow, James R. Walker Evans. 1999.
Rathbone, Belinda. Walker Evans: A Biography. 1995.
An American photographer, Walker Evans (1903-1975) was best known for his photographs of American life between the world wars. Everyday objects and people—the urban and rural poor, abandoned buildings, storefronts, street signs, and the like—are encapsulated in his laconic images of the 1930s and 1940s.
Walker Evans was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on November 3, 1903. His family moved to Toledo, Ohio, shortly after his birth but eventually settled in Kenilworth, Illinois, a well-to-do suburb of Chicago, where his father worked as a successful member of an advertising firm. Walker attended several private schools, graduating in 1922 from Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts, with the ambition to become a writer. He attended Williams College but dropped out after his freshman year.
With an allowance from his father, Evans in 1926 moved to Paris, along with other hopeful American expatriot writers bent on absorbing the artistic and intellectual climate of avant-garde postwar Europe. Yet, in Evans' own words, "I wanted so much to write that I couldn't write a word."
Back in the United States in 1928 he turned to photography and instantly felt at home in that medium. Entering the active field of American photography at the end of the 1920s, Evans was confronted with the two dominant modes of the moment, the "artistic" posture of Alfred Stieglitz and what Evans considered the blatantly "commercial" approach of Edward Steichen, both positions rejected by Evans in favor of, in his own words, "the elevated expression, the literate, authoritative, and transcendant statement which a photograph allows." In other words, he looked for something more than the esthetic or the commercial aspects of photography. He aimed for visual statements alluding to stories and values beyond the literal or the artistic.
During the early years of his career he supported himself with an assortment of jobs in New York City, where he became friends with several men who were themselves to become distinguished writers. For example, Hart Crane, a friend, published Evans' first work in The Bridge (1930). In 1931 the photographer worked with the critic Lincoln Kirstein, who published some of Evans' work in Hound and Horn, an avant garde magazine covering modernist thought and art around 1930.
The first exhibition of the photographer's production was at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York in 1932, and during the following year many of his pictures were used to illustrate The Crime of Cuba, Carleton Beal's study of social conditions in Cuba. From 1935 to 1937 Evans worked with a group of sociologists and photographers in a study of poverty in the United States during the Great Depression sponsored by the Farm Security Administration (FSA). This mid-to-late 1930s period was the most productive and photographically successful time of his life.
The quality of Evans' work gained wide recognition in 1938 with an exhibition in New York City's Museum of Modern Art and publication of American Photographs, an important book on the history of photography. In an introductory essay, Lincoln Kirstein characterized American photography in general and Walker Evans' work in particular when he wrote in this 1938 publication that "the use of the visual arts to show us our own moral and economic situation has almost completely fallen into the hands of the photographer … and [Walker Evans') pictures with all their clear, hideous and beautiful detail, their open insanity and pitiful grandeur, [is a] vision of a continent as it is, not as it might be or as it was."
On leave from FSA in 1936 Evans collaborated with James Agee on assignment from Fortune magazine in a study of the life of Southern sharecroppers. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941) was seen in the later decades as one of the best of the crop of social commentaries of the period.
From 1945 until 1965 Evans was an associate editor of Fortune, and from 1965 until his death in 1975 he taught a course at Yale University, which he called "Seeing."
Walker Evans' work is impossible to categorize neatly; it has little of the meticulous composition of the formalist, none of the literary quality of the photographic storyteller, and exhibits no signs of the noisy punch of the photojournalist. His subjects, seen generally from eye level, have the uncontaminated, clear vision of an observant youngster, a Huck Finn perception of America in the 1930s. His work implies the complex of values, judgments, hopes, and fantasies that brought the particular subject into existence.
Walker Evans: American Photographs, with an introductory essay by Lincoln Kirstein and published by the Museum of Modern Art in 1938, remains a central work for the understanding of the photographer's view of his subject. Walker Evans, with an introduction by John Szarkowski and also published by the Museum of Modern Art (1971), provides an excellent contemporary view of his work. Leslie Katz's "Interview with Walker Evans" (1971), included in Vicki Goldberg, Photography in Print (1981), provides a great deal of insight into Evans as a person. Walker Evans at Work (1982) is a useful collection of letters, interviews, and photographs.
Mora, Gilles, Walker Evans: the hungry eye, New York: H.N. Abrams, 1993.
Rathbone, Belinda, Walker Evans: a biography, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1995. □