American Photographer, Writer, and Photojournalist
St. Louis, Missouri, USA
New Haven, Connecticut, USA
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.
- 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.
Biography of Walker Evans
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.
Important Art by Walker Evans
In 1933, Evans traveled to Havana to shoot photographs for Carlton Beals's The Crime of Cuba (1933), a book denouncing the corruption of dictator Gerardo Machado. His employers asked him to shoot emotionally charged images to support Beals's impassioned prose. Evans ignored their suggestions, and produced unobtrusive views that nevertheless suggest upheaval. In this photo Evans captures a tall man in a white suit turning, perhaps aware he is being watched. The tilt of his hat, and sidelong glance make him appear mysterious, like a character from one of the period's popular murder mysteries for film or television. He does not make eye contact with the camera or the person holding it, but looks up and out. Behind him is a column of an old-fashioned arcade, a newsstand, and a newsboy reading on an overturned box. While multiple bodies are visible in the narrow shot, no one interacts with anyone else, as if to do so might be risky.
In this photograph, as in many others from the period, the subject is surrounded by signs and posters that add layers of cultural context. One of the many photographs rejected for publication in the book, Citizen in Downtown Havana, Cuba was one of Evans's personal favorites. He chose it for inclusion in his first solo exhibition at MoMA in 1938. The exhibition, entitled American Photographs, and subsequently published as a book, otherwise contained images of the American Northeast. The inclusion of a Cuban scene amongst these images of North America reflects a diplomatic closeness between the U.S. and Cuba, which was a U.S. protectorate at the time.
Evans's early photographs of dockworkers, street vendors, policemen, and beggars reveal an ability to capture a range of information, from the micro to the macro - the minutest idiosyncrasies of a culture and its overall context, doing with images what a writer might try to do in words.
Shot on assignment for the Farm Security Administration in November of 1935, this quiet, unassuming view of the steel manufacturing town of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania reflects Evans's mastery of poetry in visual form. Though shot in a residential neighborhood, there are no figures in this quiet elegy to the generations of steel workers for whom life begins and ends here. In a reverse progression from the cradle to the grave, the eye travels from the large weathered cross in the foreground to the similarly structured power leading down the hill into the middle distance. Before we reach the river, however, smokestacks rise up, blocking access to this "cradle of civilization" and the distant shore beyond it, where stately homes appear on the horizon. In this symbolic overview of a steel-worker's life, class tensions are evident. The presence of the cross suggests the structure religion provides for those who go through life without having the privilege to examine their place in the universe. As Evans recommended to other artists and outside-the-box thinkers, "die knowing something. You are not here long."
Two years after his return from Havana, Evans traveled through West Virginia, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana on assignment as a member of the "Historical Unit" of the Farm Security Administration (FSA). His job was to document life in the rural South. Here, two boys outside a country store hoist watermelons onto their shoulders. Behind them, two adults stand in the shade of the store, their silhouettes visible through the open door that leads straight through to the barn on the other side.
These frank, unadorned images of life in the rural south were revelations for American cultural audiences accustomed to cities, including writer and art connoisseur Lincoln Kirstein, who wrote: "The power of Evans's work lies in the fact that he so details the effect of circumstances on familiar specimens that the single face, the single house, the single street, strikes with the strength of overwhelming numbers, the terrible cumulative force of thousands of faces, houses, and streets." Reluctant to produce work that might be used as government propaganda, Evans remarked (perhaps somewhat defensively) as he embarked on this project: "This is pure record not propaganda . . . No politics whatever." Insistence on independence from political ideology was a persistent feature of Evans's artistic philosophy, as well as his imagery.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Walker Evans
- Walker EvansOur PickBy James R. Mellow
- Walker Evans: Depth Of FieldOur PickBy John T. Hill and Heinz Liesbrock
- Walker Evans: A BiographyBy Belinda Rathbone
- Walker Evans at work: 745 photographs together with documents selected from letters, memoranda, interviews, notesBy Walker Evans, edited by John T. Hill, with a contribution from Jerry L. Thomspon
- Walker Evans: The Hungry EyeBy Gilles Mora
- Walker EvansBy Maria Morris Hambourg, Jeff L. Rosenheim, Doug Eklund, and Mia Fineman
- American Photographs (1938)Our PickPublished by The Museum of Modern Art in 1938
- Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941)Our PickEvans's photographs are accompanied by James Agee's text
- Many Are Called (1966)A three-year photographic study of New York City's subway passengers
- Message from the Interior (1966)Photographs of building's interiors made between 1931 and 1962, from Maine to Alabama
- Walker Evans, Cuba (2001)Our PickEvans's captivating portrait of Cuba in the early 1930s