Walker Evans, 1937. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/Office of War Information Collection

Walker Evans, 1937. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/Office of War Information Collection


Walker Evans is one of the most influential artists of the twentieth century. His elegant, crystal-clear photographs and articulate publications have inspired several generations of artists, from Helen Levitt and Robert Frank to Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, and Bernd and Hilla Becher. The progenitor of the documentary tradition in American photography, Evans had the extraordinary ability to see the present as if it were already the past, and to translate that knowledge and historically inflected vision into an enduring art. His principal subject was the vernacular—the indigenous expressions of a people found in roadside stands, cheap cafés, advertisements , simple bedrooms, and small-town main streets. For fifty years, from the late 1920s to the early 1970s, Evans recorded the American scene with the nuance of a poet and the precision of a surgeon, creating an encyclopedic visual catalogue of modern America in the making.

Born in 1903 in St. Louis, Missouri, Evans dabbled with painting as a child, collected picture postcards, and made snapshots of his family and friends with a small Kodak camera. After a year at Williams College, he quit school and moved to New York City, finding work in bookstores and at the New York Public Library, where he could freely indulge his passion for T. S. Eliot, D. H. Lawrence, James Joyce, and E. E. Cummings, as well as Charles Baudelaire and Gustave Flaubert. In 1927, after a year in Paris polishing his French and writing short stories and nonfiction essays, Evans returned to New York intent on becoming a writer. However, he also took up the camera and gradually redirected his aesthetic impulses to bring the strategies of literature—lyricism, irony, incisive description, and narrative structure—into the medium of photography.

Most of Evans’ early photographs reveal the influence of European modernism, specifically its formalism and emphasis on dynamic graphic structures. But he gradually moved away from this highly aestheticized style to develop his own evocative but more reticent notions of realism, of the spectator’s role, and of the poetic resonance of ordinary subjects. The Depression years of 1935–36 were ones of remarkable productivity and accomplishment for Evans. In June 1935, he accepted a job from the U.S. Department of the Interior to photograph a government-built resettlement community of unemployed coal miners in West Virginia. He quickly parlayed this temporary employment into a full-time position as an “information specialist” in the Resettlement (later Farm Security) Administration, a New Deal agency in the Department of Agriculture.

Under the direction of Roy Stryker, the RA/FSA photographers (Dorothea Lange, Arthur Rothstein, and Russell Lee, among others) were assigned to document small-town life and to demonstrate how the federal government was attempting to improve the lot of rural communities during the Depression. Evans, however, worked with little concern for the ideological agenda or the suggested itineraries and instead answered a personal need to distill the essence of American life from the simple and the ordinary. His photographs of roadside architecture, rural churches , small-town barbers , and cemeteries reveal a deep respect for the neglected traditions of the common man and secured his reputation as America’s preeminent documentarian. From their first appearance in magazines and books in the late 1930s, these direct, iconic images entered the public’s collective consciousness and are now deeply embedded in the nation’s shared visual history of the Depression.

In the summer of 1936, Evans took a leave of absence from the Resettlement Administration to travel to the South with his friend, the writer James Agee, who had been assigned to write an article on tenant farmers by Fortunemagazine; Evans was to be the photographer. Although the magazine ultimately rejected Agee’s long text about three families in Alabama, what in time emerged from the collaboration was Let Us Now Praise Famous Men(1941), a lyric journey to the limits of direct observation. Its 500 pages of words and pictures is a volatile mix of documentary description and intensely subjective, even autobiographical writing, which endures as one of the seminal achievements of twentieth-century American letters. Evans’ photographs for Let Us Now Praise Famous Men are stunningly honest representations of the faces, bedrooms, and clothing of individual farmers living on a dry hillside seventeen miles north of Greensboro, Alabama. As a series, they seem to have elucidated the whole tragedy of the Great Depression; individually, they are intimate, transcendent, and enigmatic. For many, they are the apogee of Evans’ career in photography.

In September 1938, the Museum of Modern Art opened American Photographs, a retrospective of Evans’ first decade of photography. The museum simultaneously published American Photographs—still for many artists the benchmark against which all photographic monographs are judged. The book begins with a portrait of American society through its individuals—cotton farmers, Appalachian miners, war veterans—and social institutions—fast food, barber shops, car culture. It closes with a survey of factory towns, hand-painted signs, country churches, and simple houses—the sites and relics that constitute the tangible expressions of American desires, despairs, and traditions. Between 1938 and 1941, Evans produced a remarkable series of portraits in the New York City subway. They remained unpublished for twenty-five years, until 1966, when Houghton Mifflin released Many Are Called, a book of eighty-nine photographs, with an introduction by James Agee written in 1940. With a 35mm Contax camera strapped to his chest, its lens peeking out between two buttons of his winter coat, Evans was able to photograph his fellow passengers surreptitiously, and at close range. Although the setting was public, he found that his subjects, unposed and lost in their own thoughts, displayed a constantly shifting medley of moods and expressions—by turns curious, bored, amused, despondent, dreamy, and dyspeptic. “The guard is down and the mask is off,” he remarked. “Even more than in lone bedrooms (where there are mirrors), people’s faces are in naked repose down in the subway.”

Between 1934 and 1965, Evans contributed more than 400 photographs to 45 articles published in Fortune magazine. He worked at the luxe magazine as Special Photographic Editor from 1945 to 1965 and not only conceived of the portfolios, executed the photographs, and designed the page layouts, but also wrote the accompanying texts. His topics were executed with both black-and-white and color materials and included railroad company insignias, common tools, old summer resort hotels, and views of America from the train window. Using the standard journalistic picture-story format, Evans combined his interest in words and pictures and created a multidisciplinary narrative of unusually high quality. Classics of a neglected genre, these self-assigned essays were Evans métier for twenty years.

In 1973, Evans began to work with the innovative Polaroid SX-70 camera and an unlimited supply of film from its manufacturer. The virtues of the camera fit perfectly with his search for a concise yet poetic vision of the world: its instant prints were, for the infirm seventy-year-old photographer, what scissors and cut paper were for the aging Matisse. The unique SX-70 prints are the artist’s last photographs, the culmination of half a century of work in photography. With the new camera, Evans returned to several of his enduring themes—among the most important of which are signs, posters, and their ultimate reduction, the letter forms themselves.

“The secret of photography is, the camera takes on the character and personality of the handler.” 

– Walker Evans


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Soul-Searching Across America
Walker Evans’s ‘American Photographs,’ at MoMA

KEN JOHNSON  | JULY 18, 2013


In 1938, the Museum of Modern Art mounted its first solo photography exhibition, a display of 100 pictures by Walker Evans (1903-75) bearing the flatly declarative title “American Photographs.” In the show were images of sharecropper families in the South for which Evans is still best known. Among them was “Alabama Cotton Tenant Farmer Wife” (1936), the close-up portrait of a thin-lipped young woman against a background of weathered clapboards, a magnetic, 20th-century Madonna. People from other walks of life were represented as well: the young couple in a sleek convertible car looking quizzically back at the camera; the tall, urbane black man sporting a white suit and straw boater.

As poetically loaded as any of his portraits were his laconic, frontally framed images of rural churches, farmhouses, urban tenements, ornate building facades, main street storefronts, barber shops and factories. The camera in Evans’s hands was more than just a machine for making pictures. It was a device for seeking out the soul of America, and though his subjects have receded into the past, his images still exude a powerfully affecting pathos, an infectious longing for something spiritually real and true.

WALKER EVANS; Church, South Carolina

WALKER EVANS; Church, South Carolina

So it is a fine thing that MoMA is presenting a 75th anniversary reprise of the show with a display of more than 50 prints from the original body of work. Along with it comes a new, fifth edition of the catalog, a volume whose elegantly simple design has made it a classic for photography-book lovers. It includes an extraordinarily perceptive and passionately written essay by Lincoln Kirstein. Together, the show and the book add up to a wonderful time capsule from a dark period in United States history. But they also reverberate now in a time when the idea of America is subject to debates as fractious and far-reaching as at any time since the Civil War.

Organized by Sarah Hermanson Meister, the museum’s research and collections curator, and Drew Sawyer, a curatorial fellow in the photography department, the show is installed in the midst of the fourth-floor permanent collection galleries. There it resonates with mid-20th-century works in adjacent rooms that epitomize American art coming into its own. There are Abstract Expressionist paintings by Pollock and de Kooning on one side; proto-Pop works by Johns and Rauschenberg on another; and Pop Art pieces by Warhol, Lichtenstein and Rosenquist on a third.

The America Evans was exploring was not the one he came from and lived in. Born into an affluent family, he went to Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass. and put in a year studying French literature at Williams College before dropping out. He spent another year in Paris in 1926 taking classes at the Sorbonne and learning about modern art. Back in New York, he hung out with a literary crowd that included John Cheever, Hart Crane and Kirstein. He worked as a Wall Street stock clerk, as a photographer for the New Deal’s Farm Security Administration, as a staff writer for Time magazine and, from 1945 to 1965, as an editor at Fortune magazine.

The place evoked by Evans’s photography was a mythic realm, a ghost world. Social justice wasn’t his overriding concern, though many of his images are implicitly political. He was less interested in modern life than in what modernity was leaving in the dust, as in “Joe’s Auto Graveyard, Pennsylvania” (1936), a wide-angle view of dozens of derelict cars in a grassy field. He found heroic dignity in old buildings like “Negro Church, South Carolina” (1936) a small, wood-frame structure with a boxy steeple and a shallow, neo-Classical front porch.

As a photographer, he resisted modernizing trends toward abstraction and new kinds of technical wizardry. He didn’t make a fetish of the fine-art print. His aim was to get out of the way of his subjects, to let them speak for themselves. The things in his pictures seem to have inner lives, like people. As they do in many of Edward Hopper’s paintings, old buildings in Evans’s pictures have an uncanny interiority, as if they were conscious beings. His ostensibly objective style lightly veils feelings of identification with the overlooked, the passed-by and the outcast.

The idea of America was much on the mind of intellectuals when Evans began making photographs in the late 1920s. Alfred Stieglitz called the gallery he opened in 1929 An American Place, and American Scene painting was ascendant. Embracing conservative Regionalism on the one hand and left-leaning Social Realism on the other, that populist movement was largely a reaction to the invasion of American art by European Modernism.

Evans wasn’t an anti-Modernist reactionary. Among his most important inspirations was the French photographer Eugène Atget, whose haunting, documentary photographs of Parisian architecture were admired by European sophisticates. But like many of his contemporaries, Evans was looking for a bedrock foundation for American sensibility.

He was drawn to what the writer Greil Marcus called “The Old, Weird America,” to a vernacular culture untainted by the fancy taste of high society or the predilection for kitsch of masses. He sought the genuine in, as Kirstein put it, “an epoch so crass and so corrupt that the only purity of the ordinary individual is unconscious.”

Maybe Evans also was looking for something real and true in himself, something deeper, older and more solid than the trappings his privileged class and education gave him. For all their just-the-facts plainness, there’s a dreamlike quality to his images, as if they’d floated up from the depths of America’s collective unconscious into his personal creative psyche. That’s one way, at least, to explain what makes them still so mysteriously gripping.