“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 is considered by the Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Met) as one of the most influential artists of the 20th century. The Met’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History goes on to state,
“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.”
As many photographers (including me) did, Evans photography began in childhood with a Kodak camera. He already did some painting and had a collection of picture postcards. He began life in St. Louis. After quitting college, he moved to New York City where he worked in bookstores and at the New York Public Library. In 1927, he spent a year in Paris writing essays, short stories and getting better at French. He also started making photographs. His literary leanings focused is aesthetic toward using narrative in his photography.
The Farm Security Administration
In June of 1935, he got a commission from the Department of Interior to document a resettlement community of unemployed coal miners in West Virginia. The town had been built by the government. His work earned him a permanent position as an information specialist in the FSA, part of the Department of Agriculture. Working under Roy Stryker with other FSA photographers including Dorothea Lange, Evans documented small-town life. The spin was to show how the federal government was improving life for rural farmers and their communities during the depression.
Fortune magazine rejects the work
Evans had little regard for the political agenda. He worked to portray the essence of American life. He photographed churches, barbers, cemeteries while showing respect for their neglected traditions. He took a leave of absence from the FSA to travel to the South with writer James Agee for Fortune magazine which, ultimately, rejected the article. The result was a 500-page collaboration of words and photos in “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.” The photographs are stunning. They represent the faces of the people of three families — their homes, even their bedrooms along with their clothing living on a dry hillside 17 miles north of Greensboro, Alabama.
The New York subway portraits
For three years concluding in 1941, Walker Evans photographed portraits in the subway. They weren’t published until 1966, 25 years later. “Many Are Called” published by Houghton Mifflin contained 89 photographs. The introduction had been written in 1940 by James Agee. Evans used a 35mm Contax camera to make the images. He strapped the camera to his chest with the lens barley showing between two of the buttons on his heavy winter coat. This let him photograph his fellow riders without their knowledge. Evans described his subjects this way,
“The guard is down and the mask is off. Even more than in lone bedrooms (where there are mirrors), people’s faces are in naked repose down in the subway.”
Back to Fortune
Evans contributed over 400 photos and 45 articles to Fortune in the ensuing years. For 20 years, he worked at the magazine as “Special Photographic Editor” until 1965. He created concepts for portfolios, made the photographs and designed the layouts that ran in the pages. He used both black and white and color film to photograph everything from railroad signage to company logos to old summer resorts. He made photographs through the windows of trains he rode across the country. His self assigned essays were his métier.
“Stare. It is the way to educate your eye, and more. Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long.”
Polaroid provided Evans with one of the innovative SX-70 cameras along with an unlimited supply of film. By this time, 1973, Evans was infirm. He found joy in using the simple camera to make one-of-a-kind instant prints of his poetic vision. These are his last photographs. Each is unique. Each is an original, just like Walker Evans.
Thanks to The Met for the biography of Walker Evans from which this article is excerpted.
Be inspired by photographers past and currently working. Read more in On Photography.