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Walker Evans

American Photographer, Writer, and Photojournalist

Movements and Styles: Modern Photography, Photojournalism

Born: November 3, 1903 - St. Louis, Missouri, USA

Died: April 10, 1975 - New Haven, Connecticut, USA

Walker Evans Timeline

Important Art by Walker Evans

The below artworks are the most important by Walker Evans - that both overview the major creative periods, and highlight the greatest achievements by the artist.

Citizen in Downtown Havana, Cuba (1933)
Artwork Images

Citizen in Downtown Havana, Cuba (1933)

Artwork description & Analysis: 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.

Gelatin Silver Print - Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

A Graveyard and Steel Mill in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania (1935)
Artwork Images

A Graveyard and Steel Mill in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania (1935)

Artwork description & Analysis: 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."

Gelatin Silver Print - Museum of Modern Art, New York

Roadside stand near Birmingham, Alabama (1936)
Artwork Images

Roadside stand near Birmingham, Alabama (1936)

Artwork description & Analysis: 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.

Gelatin Silver Print - Farm Security Administration - Office of War Information Photograph Collection

Alabama Cotton Tenant Farmer Wife (1936)
Artwork Images

Alabama Cotton Tenant Farmer Wife (1936)

Artwork description & Analysis: While Evans was on leave from his job for the FSA during the summer of 1936, Fortune magazine commissioned him to collaborate with writer James Agee on a piece that focused on impoverished sharecropping families from Alabama. Fortune never published the material that ensued from this commission, but it resulted in some of Evans's most iconic works. In 1941 their collaboration was assembled into a book entitled Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Deemed by the New York Public Library to be one of the most influential books of the last century, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men scrutinized a culture's character and captured the cadence of its ordinary people. Refusing to dramatize poverty, this series of unlabeled photographs captured the Great Depression as stark, truthful tragedy. The faces, towns, rooms, and clothes of impoverished famers distilled the hardship being felt all over the country.

Evans made several photographs of Mrs. Burroughs, each slightly different from the others but all bound by a characteristically clean composition and penchant for visual clarity. The weathered wall behind her, with its evocative horizontal lines, anticipates the abstraction of future photographers like Aaron Siskind and Frederick Sommer. These straight lines underscore the flatness of her unsmiling, prematurely aged features, and her expression - head slightly tilted, brows slightly furrowed, mouth slightly downturned - holds us captive precisely because it is so difficult to read. As opposed to an allegory of suffering and privation, Burroughs is an individual.

Gelatin Silver Print - Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Subway Portrait (1941)
Artwork Images

Subway Portrait (1941)

Artwork description & Analysis: "The guard is down and the mask is off," Walker Evans wrote of his Subway Portraits, a series of subway commuters shot with a hidden camera from 1938 to 1942 that reflects his brilliance as a storyteller. With a 35 mm Contax camera fastened to his chest and a rigged cable release in his hand, Evans captured scores of people deep in conversation, immersed in their reading, or lost in thought. Unaware of the camera, their attitudes and expressions reflect the subway's unwritten code for human behavior, a mixture of anonymity and intimacy. They also bring forward the personalities of individuals.

Here, a well-dressed man leans forward anxiously (is he late for something?) and trains his attention on an advertisement or a sign above him. To his right, we see the hand of another commuter grasping the newspaper. The tension in their poses is essential for maintaining balance on the train, but it also conveys the constant stress of the urban environment. Using a concealed camera and riding the subway, a technically tricky endeavor, meant Evans too was unrelaxed and had to relinquish traditional types of control photographers usually exert over their shots. Just positioning himself in relation to the subject and choosing the moment at which to take it was difficult enough. As a result, his subjects are often off-kilter, the perfect metaphor for a culture constantly in motion.

- Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Untitled (1946)
Artwork Images

Untitled (1946)

Artwork description & Analysis: In 1946, Evans turned his attention on an assignment for Fortune to capture the spirit of the American worker. Still wishing to investigate the balance between authenticity and anonymity explored in his Subway Portraits, Evans spent an afternoon on a Detroit sidewalk photographing anyone who came by. He held his Rolleiflex camera at waist height and captured individuals walking in front of a sunlit plywood wall. The resulting photographs, first published in the magazine under the title "Labor Anonymous," were later collected into a book by the same name.

While not posed in the traditional sense, these portraits are skillfully constructed. The spare background and close cropping (favorite techniques of Evans) compel us to focus on details of dress, pose, and expression like the tilt of a hat, or direction of the gaze. The presence of dramatic natural light, and the low angle at which he positions the camera elevates the subject - literally and figuratively. These average men (and one woman) on their way to work appear monumental and heroic.

Gelatin Silver Print - Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Upstairs Room, Walpole, Maine (1962)
Artwork Images

Upstairs Room, Walpole, Maine (1962)

Artwork description & Analysis: In the 1960s, Evans ended two decades of work at Fortune magazine and accepted a professorship at Yale. Recognized as a landmark at the time, Message From the Interior marks a turning point in Evans's career, away from commercial photography and toward more moody, evocative, personal pieces. The series, published as a book in 1966, depicts empty interiors. Evoking the work of Eugene Atget, Evans's personal hero, Evans captures sagging chairs, rumpled bedding, and half-opened doors in great detail as if to preserve these weary structures for eternity.

In Upstairs Room, Walpole, Maine, signs of human presence are evident in the worn floorboards, the scuffed rug, and even the positioning of the chair near the wall at an angle, as if a weary arm has recently placed it there. The lived-in texture of each inanimate object evokes not just one but many dwellers, now absent, who lived in the house over generations. Positively received by critics, these interiors are a meditation on the history of everyday life, and a continuation of Evans's life-long project: exploring different ways to capture what he saw as the essence of humanity.

Gelatin Silver Print - Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art



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Walker Evans Photo

Related Art and Artists

Ragpicker, avenue des Gobelins (1901)
Artwork Images

Ragpicker, avenue des Gobelins (1901)

Artist: Eugène Atget

Artwork description & Analysis: A ragpicker takes up the entire frame of Atget's shot on a Parisian street side. With the background blurred, all the attention is focused on the trade of the man who poses with a very large wooden cart behind him. In 1898 Atget embarked on a project with the quasi-encyclopedic aim of capturing the old city of Paris under threat from new urbanization. With a series on the forgotten jobs, he showed people's day-to-day environment without embellishment.

The photographer reveals the social and political changes that led to modern France. Following the path set forth by the quintessential French modernist, Charles Baudelaire, whose poem, The Ragpickers' Wine, illustrated ragpickers as, "Bruised by hard work, tormented by their years, each bent double by the junk he carries, the jumbled vomit of enormous Paris" - Atget continued this modern epithet and made the ragpicker part of his larger metaphor of the poet as a hero of modernity. Writer Jules Janin considered the ragpicker's basket as "a great catch-basin into which flows all the scum of the social body".

Furthermore, as someone who could personally identify with French workers, he frequently read leftist newspapers and championed the French worker in his subjects. Ragpickers wandered the streets looking for trash to be collected and resold. Their position in society is apparent especially when considering that livestock could easily replace their station. The ragpicker was explored by Édouard Manet, who undertook a series of pictures portraying street characters during the 1860s. At the end of the twentieth century, contemporary artist Zoe Leonar defined the photographer him/herself as ragpicker.

Albumen Print - The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, California

Forty-Two Kids (1907)

Forty-Two Kids (1907)

Movement: Ashcan School

Artist: George Bellows

Artwork description & Analysis: Forty-two boys or "kids" swim in the dirty waters of New York City's East River to escape the stifling heat of ill-ventilated tenement apartments. Under the dark cover of night at the city's edge, the boys use a modified dog paddle as their stroke to push floating garbage out of their way. George Bellows's brushy, rough application of oil paint marked the boys' social class onto their bodies, which are nude and scrawny. The term "kid" was popularized by the cartoon Hogan's Alley, whose protagonist was "The Yellow Kid," a slum-dwelling hooligan.

Bellows's depiction of city boys diving off splintered piers and reveling in their freedom, coupled with his bravura, painterly style appalled several New York art critics. One caustically appraised Bellows's canvas, asserting that "most of the boys look more like maggots than humans." While many similarly derisive words denigrated poor immigrants, the boys themselves are clearly enjoying their escape from society's scrutiny. Bellows's work typifies the Ashcan School artists' interest in everyday subject matter, the urban poor, and the overall vitality of life.

Oil on canvas - National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Automat (1927)
Artwork Images

Automat (1927)

Artist: Edward Hopper

Artwork description & Analysis: Hopper's Automat captures a woman who has stepped out of the busy urban scene incumbent with necessary human interaction, taking refuge in the respite provided by a local diner. This image perfectly captures Hopper's brilliant depictions of the isolation of the individual within the modern urban city. The main figure is depicted sitting alone at a table, staring pensively down at her coffee. The fact that she still wears one glove, having removed the other, indicates this will be a brief stop and that she'll soon hurry on to another destination. By definition, automats (self-service restaurants where the food and drinks were dispensed through vending machines) suggest isolated experiences, the opportunity to pick up a meal without exchanging pleasantries. This subject probably had great appeal to the reticent, slightly antisocial Hopper. Of additional interest is her delineation from an adjacent table, suggesting the presence of an unidentified viewer. The idea of a voyeur's gaze on a lonely, dejected single woman was exhibited in Impressionistic masterpieces such as Edouard Manet's The Plum (c. 1877) and Edgar Degas's L'Absinthe (1876). Hopper surpasses these images by elevating the significance of the setting to a level on par with that of the figure, emphasizing the automat's function as a busy venue where, despite the autonomous act of retrieving food from a machine, crowds are the norm. Psychological nuance is added by focusing on a woman sunk in loneliness despite being in a place consistently flooded with people.

- Des Moines Art Center

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Content compiled and written by Alicia Lopez

Edited and revised by Ruth Epstein

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Alicia Lopez
Edited and revised by Ruth Epstein
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