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Walker Evans

American Photographer, Writer, and Photojournalist

Walker Evans Photo

Born: November 3, 1903 - St. Louis, Missouri, USA

Died: April 10, 1975 - New Haven, Connecticut, USA

"Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long."

Walker Evans Signature

Summary of Walker Evans

The photographs of Walker Evans told the story of American working-class life with an exacting frankness that was truly revolutionary for its time. His iconic portrait of Allie Mae Burroughs - a farmer's wife, and mother of four - whose unforgettable eyes seem to stare right through us - is one of the most firmly embedded images in American consciousness. A staffer at Fortune and Time magazines, Evans actually reached the height of his powers toward the end of The Great Depression. Drawing deeply on the American literary tradition, he went further than others in his refusal to romanticize poverty. While they might look like protagonists from American Realist novels (those by William Faulkner or John Steinbeck, for example), his men and women are real people, more firmly immortalized because it takes more time to read a book than see a photograph. Widely acknowledged as one of the greatest photographers of his time, Evans's forthright approach to portraiture and documentary redefined these genres for generations to come, and shaped how a nation remembers itself.

Key Ideas

A great example of the bond between art and literature in the 20th century, Ernest Hemingway shaped Evans's early style. The two became drinking buddies in Cuba, and the unadorned simplicity of Evans's photographs owes much to Hemingway's terse, direct prose.
Evans was physically slight and small, an advantage that allowed him to take photographs before anyone noticed him. He was also something of a technical wizard, among the first to use increasingly portable cameras and shortened exposure times in the series of surreptitious Subway Portraits.
Visual, artistic, and literary sources shaped his views of working-class society. Among the most important of these sources were the painters of New York street life, from George Bellows to Edward Hopper, and documentary photographers like Jacob Riis and Lewis Hines. Above all the great Berenice Abbott, one of his staunchest supporters, was an important early touchstone for Evans.
Initially Evans wanted to become a writer. He remained a profoundly literary thinker. It is important to remember that most of his images were shot for books, magazines, articles, and essays.
In Evans time, there were essentially two competing philosophies of photography: Documentary vs. Pictorialist. Documentary strove to represent the world as it was, flaws and all; Pictorialism produced a selective, transcendent view of the world, akin to traditional Western painting. Evans's work, a blend of these two philosophies, brought greater nuance to the practice of photography. As he put it, "What I believe is really good in the so-called documentary approach to photography is the addition of lyricism... produced unconsciously and even unintentionally and accidentally by the cameraman."
His work presents a powerful class-based dilemma. Born into an affluent family, Evans never fully identified with the poor rural farmers he portrayed. In addition to direct observation, he relied heavily on literary sources for his insights, creating a kind of closed-feedback loop that reinforced an outsider's perspective. Critics still cannot agree on whether his photographs facilitate empathy or reinforce distance from the subjects, whose lives were so different from his own. The clinical precision of Evans's work has been interpreted as cold and unfeeling. In his defense, Evans understood this class-based tension years before others picked up on it. Attempts to address it are abundant in his quotes.
Walker Evans Photo

Born to an affluent family in St. Louis (his father was an advertising executive), Evans began making photographs as a child, and continued as the family moved to Chicago and subsequently Ohio. After a brief stint at Williams College, Evans moved to New York, where he planned to become a poet and novelist. T.S. Eliot, D. H. Lawrence, James Joyce, and E.E. Cummings were among his personal heroes. Once in New York, however, he experienced crippling writer's block. He "wanted so much to write" that he "couldn't write a word." Unable to produce, and needing a job, Evans accepted low pay for work at the New York Public Library and several book stores, where he was free to roam and read. After three years of dead-end jobs and no luck in the publishing world, the young man packed up his belongings and set sail for Paris, still planning to realize his literary ambitions.

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