Whether he is an artist or not, the photographer is a joyous sensualist, for the simple reason that the eye traffics in feelings, not in thoughts.
– Walker Evans
Walker Evans (1903-1975) was an American photographer best known for his photographs of American life between the world wars. Everyday objects and people—the urban and rural poor, abandoned buildings, storefronts, street signs, and the like—are encapsulated in his laconic images of the 1930s and 1940s.
Walker Evans was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on November 3, 1903. His family moved to Toledo, Ohio, shortly after his birth but eventually settled in Kenilworth, Illinois, a well-to-do suburb of Chicago, where his father worked as a successful member of an advertising firm. Walker attended several private schools, graduating in 1922 from Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts, with the ambition to become a writer. He attended Williams College but dropped out after his freshman year.
With an allowance from his father, Evans in 1926 moved to Paris, along with other hopeful American expatriate writers bent on absorbing the artistic and intellectual climate of avant-garde postwar Europe. Yet, in Evans’ own words, “I wanted so much to write that I couldn’t write a word.”
Back in the United States in 1928, he turned to photography and instantly felt at home in that medium. Entering the active field of American photography at the end of the 1920s, Evans was confronted with the two dominant modes of the moment, the “artistic” posture of Alfred Stieglitz and what Evans considered the blatantly “commercial” approach of Edward Steichen, both positions rejected by Evans in favor of, in his own words, “the elevated expression, the literate, authoritative, and transcendent statement which a photograph allows.” In other words, he looked for something more than the esthetic or the commercial aspects of photography. He aimed for visual statements alluding to stories and values beyond the literal or the artistic.
During the early years of his career, he supported himself with an assortment of jobs in New York City, where he became friends with several men who were themselves to become distinguished writers. For example, Hart Crane, a friend, published Evans’ first work in The Bridge (1930). In 1931 the photographer worked with the critic Lincoln Kirstein, who published some of Evans’ work in Hound and Horn, an avant-garde magazine covering modernist thought and art around 1930.
The first exhibition of the photographer’s production was at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York in 1932, and during the following year, many of his pictures were used to illustrate The Crime of Cuba, Carleton Beal’s study of social conditions in Cuba. From 1935 to 1937 Evans worked with a group of sociologists and photographers in a study of poverty in the United States during the Great Depression sponsored by the Farm Security Administration (FSA). This mid-to-late 1930s period was the most productive and photographically successful time of his life.
The quality of Evans’ work gained wide recognition in 1938 with an exhibition in New York City’s Museum of Modern Art and publication of American Photographs, an important book on the history of photography. In an introductory essay, Lincoln Kirstein characterized American photography in general and Walker Evans’ work in particular when he wrote in this 1938 publication that “the use of the visual arts to show us our own moral and economic situation has almost completely fallen into the hands of the photographer … and [Walker Evans’) pictures with all their clear, hideous and beautiful detail, their open insanity and pitiful grandeur, [is a] vision of a continent as it is, not as it might be or as it was.”
On leave from FSA in 1936 Evans collaborated with James Agee on an assignment from Fortune magazine in a study of the life of Southern sharecroppers. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941) was seen in the later decades as one of the best of the crop of social commentaries of the period.
From 1945 until 1965 Evans was an associate editor of Fortune, and from 1965 until his death in 1975 he taught a course at Yale University, which he called “Seeing.”
Walker Evans’ work is impossible to categorize neatly; it has little of the meticulous composition of the formalist, none of the literary quality of the photographic storyteller, and exhibits no signs of the noisy punch of the photojournalist. His subjects, seen generally from eye level, have the uncontaminated, clear vision of an observant youngster, a Huck Finn perception of America in the 1930s. His work implies the complexity of values, judgments, hopes, and fantasies that brought the particular subject into existence.