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Artists Walker Evans
Walker Evans Photo

Walker Evans

American Photographer, Writer, and Photojournalist

Movements and Styles: Modern Photography, Straight Photography, Photojournalism

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

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

Walker Evans Timeline

Quotes

"When I first made photographs, they were too plain to be considered art and I wasn't considered an artist. I didn't get any attention at all. The people who looked at my work thought, well, that's just a snapshot of the backyard. Privately I knew otherwise and through stubbornness stayed with it."
Walker Evans
"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
"The matter of art in photography may come down to this: it is the capture and projection of the delights of seeing; it is the defining of observation full and felt."
Walker Evans
"What I believe is really good in the so-called documentary approach to photography is the addition of lyricism. This quality is usually produced unconsciously and even unintentionally and accidentally by the cameraman."
Walker Evans
"I used to try to figure out precisely what I was seeing all the time, until I discovered I didn't need to. If the thing is there, why, there it is."
Walker Evans
"Good photography is unpretentious."
Walker Evans
"I work rather blindly. I have a theory that seems to work with me that some of the best things you ever do sort of come through you. You don't know where you get the impetus and response to what's before your eyes."
Walker Evans
"I do like to suggest people sometimes by their absence. I like to make you feel that an interior is almost inhabited by somebody."
Walker Evans
"I think there is a period of esthetic discovery that happens to a man and he can do all sorts of things at white heat."
Walker Evans

"Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long."

Walker Evans Signature

Synopsis

The photographs of Walker Evans told the story of American working-class life with an exacting frankness that was truly revolutionary for its time. His iconic portrait of Allie Mae Burroughs - a farmer's wife, and mother of four - whose unforgettable eyes seem to stare right through us - is one of the most firmly embedded images in American consciousness. A staffer at Fortune and Time magazines, Evans actually reached the height of his powers toward the end of The Great Depression. Drawing deeply on the American literary tradition, he went further than others in his refusal to romanticize poverty. While they might look like protagonists from American Realist novels (those by William Faulkner or John Steinbeck, for example), his men and women are real people, more firmly immortalized because it takes more time to read a book than see a photograph. Widely acknowledged as one of the greatest photographers of his time, Evans's forthright approach to portraiture and documentary redefined these genres for generations to come, and shaped how a nation remembers itself.

Key Ideas

A great example of the bond between art and literature in the twentieth century, Ernest Hemingway shaped Evans's early style. The two became drinking buddies in Cuba, and the unadorned simplicity of Evans's photographs owes much to Hemingway's terse, direct prose.
Evans was physically slight and small, an advantage that allowed him to take photographs before anyone noticed him. He was also something of a technical wizard, among the first to use increasingly portable cameras and shortened exposure times in the series of surreptitious Subway Portraits.
Visual, artistic, and literary sources shaped his views of working-class society. Among the most important of these sources were the painters of New York street life, from George Bellows to Edward Hopper, and documentary photographers like Jacob Riis and Lewis Hines. Above all the great Berenice Abbott, one of his staunchest supporters, was an important early touchstone for Evans.
Initially Evans wanted to become a writer. He remained a profoundly literary thinker. It is important to remember that most of his images were shot for books, magazines, articles, and essays.
In Evans time, there were essentially two competing philosophies of photography: Documentary vs. Pictorialist. Documentary strove to represent the world as it was, flaws and all; Pictorialism produced a selective, transcendent view of the world, akin to traditional Western painting. Evans's work, a blend of these two philosophies, brought greater nuance to the practice of photography. As he put it, "What I believe is really good in the so-called documentary approach to photography is the addition of lyricism... produced unconsciously and even unintentionally and accidentally by the cameraman."
His work presents a powerful class-based dilemma. Born into an affluent family, Evans never fully identified with the poor rural farmers he portrayed. In addition to direct observation, he relied heavily on literary sources for his insights, creating a kind of closed-feedback loop that reinforced an outsider's perspective. Critics still cannot agree on whether his photographs facilitate empathy or reinforce distance from the subjects, whose lives were so different from his own. The clinical precision of Evans's work has been interpreted as cold and unfeeling. In his defense, Evans understood this class-based tension years before others picked up on it. Attempts to address it are abundant in his quotes.

Most Important Art

Walker Evans Famous Art

Citizen in Downtown Havana, Cuba (1933)

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.
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Walker Evans Artworks in Focus:

Biography

Early Period

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 twentieth-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.

Walker Evans Photo

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.

Mature Period

Photography flourished under the Great Depression, thanks to Roosevelt's New Deal, which paid artists to work. The Farm Security Administration (FSA) hired
Photography flourished under the Great Depression, thanks to Roosevelt's New Deal, which paid artists to work. The Farm Security Administration (FSA) hired

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.

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Walker Evans Biography Continues
Portrait of Walker Evans (1937), by Edwin Locke
Portrait of Walker Evans (1937), by Edwin Locke

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.


Legacy

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.

Influences and Connections

Influences on artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Influenced by artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Walker Evans
Interactive chart with Walker Evans's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
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View Influences Chart

Artists

Eugène AtgetEugène Atget
August SanderAugust Sander
Ralph Steiner
Ernest HemingwayErnest Hemingway
Berenice AbbottBerenice Abbott

Friends

James AgeeJames Agee
Lincoln Kirstein
Hart Crane
Ben ShahnBen Shahn

Movements

Modernism and Modern ArtModernism and Modern Art
Social RealismSocial Realism
Walker Evans
Walker Evans
Years Worked: 1928 - 1975

Artists

Helen LevittHelen Levitt
Robert FrankRobert Frank
Diane ArbusDiane Arbus
Lee FriedlanderLee Friedlander
Bernd and Hilla BecherBernd and Hilla Becher

Friends

James AgeeJames Agee
Jerry Thompson

Movements

Social RealismSocial Realism
Documentary PhotographyDocumentary Photography

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Cite this page

Content compiled and written by Alicia Lopez

Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Ruth Epstein

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Alicia Lopez
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Ruth Epstein
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Useful Resources on Walker Evans

Books

Websites

Videos

More

The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing of this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.

biography

Walker Evans Recomended resource

By James R. Mellow

Walker Evans: Depth Of Field Recomended resource

By John T. Hill and Heinz Liesbrock

Walker Evans: A Biography

By Belinda Rathbone

Walker Evans at work: 745 photographs together with documents selected from letters, memoranda, interviews, notes

By Walker Evans, edited by John T. Hill, with a contribution from Jerry L. Thomspon

More Interesting Books about Walker Evans
Walker Evans

A brief overview of the artist's life by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, which houses nearly all of Evans's work

A review of the MoMA's 75th anniversary reprise of its first solo photography exhibition: Evans's American Photographs Recomended resource

Walker Evans in his own words Recomended resource

A recording in which Evans recalls his experiences photographing in the Deep South and reflects on the nature of his work

interviews

Walker Evans interview by Paul Cumming Recomended resource

An audio recording in which the artists comments on the development of his work for the Archives of American Art

Excerpt from Leslie Katz interview with Walker Evans

Interview conducted in 1971 in which Evans reflects on his artistic process

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