Monday, September 12, 2011

Walker Evans

Walker Evans

"Fine photography is literate, and it should be."

Photographer Walker Evans (November 3, 1903 - April 10, 1975) was born in St. Louis, MO and spent his youth in Toledo, Chicago and New York City. (1)


Initially gaining fame for his photography during the Great Depression, Evans remarked that "his work should be termed "documentary style" rather than "documentary" photography." (2) From 1929 until his death in 1975, Evans chronicled significant aspects of myriad American experiences through his widely divergent subject matter: signs, bridges, Victorian homes, impoverished farmers, government agencies, riders of New York City's subway system. His adherence to the "documentary style" yielded a truthful yet artistic rendering of America and helped to define the role of photography as art.


Though Evans never declared a distinct political preference, his stark, honest photography of poor families caught in the throes of the Depression belied a liberal sensibility insofar as his pictures raised the social consciousness and engendered sympathy for the needy. Evans also endeavored to do more than simply document a particular situation; he intentionally arranged some pictures to convey a particular idea or sentiment. In the 1930s, the message of his pictures - especially pictures of poor tenant families - was liberal, in line with Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal: "Like so many well-intentioned government reformers of the 1930s, he wanted to show that, although the sharecroppers needed help, they were not helpless." (3)

Projects in the 1930s:

Through the early thirties, Evans primarily specialized in structural photography. In 1930, Hart Crane's poem, Bridge, featured three pictures of the Brooklyn Bridge taken by Evans. Evans spent much of 1931 photographing Victorian houses in Boston. (2) Through this collection of architectural photographs, Evans earned a reputation for his surgical - even tedious - precision. Author and friend, Lincoln Kirstein, said these pictures were "based on moral virtues of patience, surgical accuracy, and self-effacement." (2) He spent 1933 in Cuba, chronicling the revolt against Gerardo Machado for publisher Carleton Beals, but the most exciting pictures were actually newspaper clippings Evans simply cut out of local publications. He spent his time photographing the things that interested him. (1)
In 1935, Evans began photographing the work of the Resettlement Administration in West Virginia and Pennsylvania at the bequest of the United States
government. He captured American families, facilitated by aid of govern
ment incentives, relocating from urban to rural areas. He continued his work for the Resettlement Administration and began shooting for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) as well.
While working
for the FSA, Evans - with writer James Agee - went to Hale County, Alabama on an assignment from Fortune magazine to photograph three, white tenant families. Ultimately, Fortune decided not to run either the story Agee wrote or the photographs Evans took, but both works were eventually published in the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men in 1941. The book, with its moving images and explications, came to greatly influence the national perception of the Depression.
In 1938, Evans completed his assignment with the FSA, and The
Museum of Modern Art in New York City held an exhibition of his work - the museum's first exhibit dedicated to only one photographer. He published a book of his photography, augmented with reflective essays by Lincoln Kirstein, called Walker Evans: American Photographs. Evans also began his decades long project of photographing passengers in subways with a camera hidden in his coat. The book - entitled Many Are Called - would not be published until 1966.


Evans photographed for and later became editor of Fortune magazine. As such, the magazine, for its 75th anniversary, ran Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. His photographs are iconic images of rural hardship in the Depression and appear in texts and other media relating to the period. His photographs are featured in museums across the country. Notably amongst these is the New York City Modern Museum of Art.


Evans attained increasing popularity throughout his ca
reer, but Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and Walker Evans: American Photographs became his landmark achievements. His work was critically acclaimed, as evidenced by the New York City's Modern Museum of Art's exclusive exhibition of his work, and "contemporary reviewers all the way up to Eleanor Roosevelt seemed to agree there was a message [there]." (4) Critics from the leftist magazines New Masses and The New Republic extolled Evans's "reticence, delicacy and a bitter surgical honesty." (4) Poet William Carlos Williams shared their admiration: "The pictures talk to us. And they say plenty." (4) Much of this praise stems from the "literature" of Evans's photography which, in the eyes of entities such as New Masses and The New Republic, correlated with - if not supported - the leftist social agendas.
However, his work was not universally admired. Regarding Walker Evans: American Photographs, the New York Times book critic saw, not truth, but "bumps, warts, boils and blackheads." Photographer Ansel Adams, in a letter to Georgie O'Keefe, called Evans's work "atrocious." (4)

Major Works:

1. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

2. Walker Evans: American Photographs

3. FSA and RA photographs


Evans worked closely and consiste
ntly with writer Lincoln Kirstein. He also collaborated with James Agee for Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Given his success and visibility, Evans's work was known by a great number of influential figures in the 1930s. William Carlos Williams hailed Evans while Ansel Adams roundly disliked the photographer's work.


1. Sante, Luc, Irene Oppenheim, Leonard Michaels, Greil Marcus, W.S. Di Piero, Frederick Wiseman, and Daniel Wolff. "Walker Evans." The Threepenny Review Winter 2002: 16-21. Print.

2. Curtis, James C., and Sheila Grannen. "Let Us Now Appraise Famous Photographers." Winterthur Portfolio Spring 1980: 1-23. JSTOR. Web. 10 Sept. 2011.

3. Lima, Benjamin. "Review: The Evans File." JSTOR. JSTOR. Web. 15 Sept. 2011.

4. Tagg, John. "Melancholy Realism: Walker Evans's Resistance to Meaning." JSTOR. JSTOR. Web. 15 Sept. 2011.

5. Rabinowitz, Paula. "Voyeurism and Class Consciousness: James Agee and Walker Evans, "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men"" JSTOR. JSTOR. Web. 14 Sept. 2011.

6. Kirstein, Lincoln. "Walker Evans' Photographs of Victorian Architecture." JSTOR. JSTOR. Web. 13 Sept. 2011.

7. Kirstein, Lincoln, and Peter Galassi. "Walker Evans: American Photographs." JSTOR. JSTOR. Web. 13 Sept. 2011.

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