Walker Evans - Biography and Legacy
American Photographer, Writer, and Photojournalist
St. Louis, Missouri, USA
New Haven, Connecticut, USA
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.
Writing came no more easily to Evans in Paris, but the time was one of great "intellectual stimulus", according to the artist. Having encountered the work of French photographer Eugene Atget and his pupil, Berenice Abbott (two other early-20th-century greats to whom Evans was very much indebted), he was primed to retrace their footsteps through the city of Paris. In 1927 he returned to New York and joined the ranks of an emerging literary circle that was increasingly intertwined with art. It counted amongst its numbers John Cheever, Hart Crane, and Lincoln Kirstein. Stimulated by this community, Evans's budding interest in photography soon became a full-fledged passion. By 1929 he was making ambitious photographs of the city's skyscrapers and machinery and returned to his interest in Atget's work, whose sparse photographs of fin-de-siècle Paris greatly resonated with his growing disdain for aesthetic gimmickry. Inspired, Evans began to delve even deeper into photography and was soon publishing his work and receiving commissions for photo series.
In 1933, on one such commission, the artist was sent to Cuba on assignment for Carleton Beals's book The Crime of Cuba (1933). While on this assignment Evans befriended and drank nightly with Ernest Hemingway, who helped the artist extend his stay in Havana an additional week. The photographs Evans captured of Cuban coastal street life, beggars, and policemen represent the beginning of his shift away from the formalism of European modernism and towards his own distinctive brand of realism. Fearing that some of his photographs might be deemed subversive and thus get confiscated by the Cuban government, before leaving Havana, Evans entrusted 46 photographic prints to his drinking companion, who promptly forgot them. They were rediscovered and exhibited in 2002.
Photography flourished under the Great Depression, thanks to Roosevelt's New Deal, which paid artists to work. The Farm Security Administration (FSA) hired Evans alongside other photographers to document the government's improvement efforts in rural communities. Unconcerned with the political ideology behind his assignment, Evans spent the better part of 1935 and 1936 eloquently capturing the aesthetic texture of ordinary life via rural churches, bedrooms, faded signs, and rumpled work clothes. He avoided using upscale equipment. Despite being familiar with and capable of affording the latest technology, Evans used an outdated camera with a very slow lens, just as his idol, Eugène Atget, had done in Paris. In 1936 he collaborated with the writer James Agee on an essay with photographs and text documenting tenant farmers for Fortune magazine. Fortune never published the material that ensued from this commission, but in 1941 Evans and Agee's collaboration was assembled into a book entitled Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a series of photographs that unflinchingly captures the stark tragedy of the Great Depression.
The Museum of Modern Art recognized Evans's gift for capturing the American vernacular with his first solo exhibition in 1938. Around the same time Evans began to shoot a series of portraits taken surreptitiously in the New York City subway. Like his earlier work, these photographs revealed unassuming moments in daily life with straightforward exactness. In 1945 Evans joined the staff of Time magazine and shortly thereafter became an editor at Fortune, where he continued to work for two decades.
In 1958 he met and married Isabelle Storey, a woman 30 years his junior. It was an unhappy marriage that ended in divorce a little over a decade later. An intensely private man, Evans kept to himself. In his personal life, he drifted more toward writers (Ernest Hemingway, James Agee, and others) than artists as friends. Storey, his ex-wife, published a revealing autobiography in 2008 portraying her late husband as an eccentric, driven, witty, yet often prickly person who could be a self-absorbed snob. Despite tremendous patience with the camera, and compassion for working-class heroes, Evans was evidently short-tempered in the upscale circles in which he and his wife traveled, and prone to unprompted fits of rage. When Storey mentioned wanting children, for example, Evans responded: "A child of mine would have to be educated at Groton and Harvard, and we don't have the money."
In 1965 Evans became a professor at the Yale University School of Art. From that time on he carried out few photography projects. While less prolific as an artist, he continued to teach until his death in 1975.
The Legacy of Walker Evans
Evans's profound impact on the field of photography is uncontested. While he disdained fancy equipment and overly aesthetic shots, Evans was among the first documentary photographers to display his work in the context of beautifully bound and expensively designed books. A cohesive means for artistic expression, this enabled his photographs to be seen as art, and laid the groundwork for later photojournalists to display their works as art too.
A committed teacher as well as a photographer, Evans inspired countless artists, among them the photographers Helen Levitt, Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, and Bernd and Hilla Becher. In the postmodern epoch, Sherrie Levine went as far as to re-photograph Evans's Depression-era shots for a series entitled After Walker Evans (1981). While some have seen Levine's work as a criticism of Evans, Levine commented: "I wanted to make pictures that contradicted themselves. I wanted to put one picture on top of another so that there were times when both pictures disappear and other times when they were both manifest. That vibration is basically what the work was about for me - that space in the middle where there is no picture, rather an emptiness, an oblivion." Evans continues to looms large in contemporary photography. Whether in criticism or homage, artists continue to refer to his photographs, which sum up moments in history and our culture's perceptions of those moments.