Walker Evans

Eumenis Megalopoulos | Dec 21, 2023

Table of Content


Walker Evans († April 10, 1975 in New Haven, Connecticut) was an American photographer.

Evans grew up in a wealthy family and attended, among other schools, the private Loomis Chaffee School in Windsor. He developed a keen literary interest early on and in 1926 took a trip to Paris to prepare for a writing career. In Paris, he enrolled at the Université Sorbonne. His studies were devoted to the works of Gustave Flaubert and Charles Baudelaire, while he was also very familiar with the work of James Joyce. Evans stayed in Paris for a year and moved in the literary and artistic circles there.

Back in the United States, Evans abandoned his career aspirations as a writer and devoted himself to photography as a self-taught photographer from 1928. Familiar with the work of the Bauhaus and the Russian avant-garde, he pursued a graphically abstract, constructivist style. He found his motifs primarily in New York. His series of the Brooklyn Bridge was published in 1929 in the poetry collection The Bridge by Hart Crane. Evans had already changed his style by this time. He photographed life on the streets of New York on 35mm film. Because of his precarious financial situation, Evans worked nights and took photographs during the day. His wife financed the rent of their shared apartment.

In the same year, Walker Evans met Lincoln Kirstein, editor of the magazine Hound & Horn, who was also interested in literature. Through him he met Berenice Abbott, where he first saw originals by Eugène Atget. Kirstein initiated Evans' first exhibition participation (with Margaret Bourke-White and Ralph Steiner) at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1929. Evans' engagement with the work of Walter Benjamin culminated in an article he wrote in Hound & Horn. Here it is clear that he was also familiar with German Neue Sachlichkeit and with the work of German photographers Albert Renger-Patzsch and August Sander. Kirstein encouraged Evans to study the great American documentarists Mathew B. Brady and Lewis Hine, eventually proposing a documentary project to him. In 1931, Walker Evans photographed typical examples of this historic architectural style for a book Kirstein was planning on the disappearing Victorian architecture in New England. After working in 35mm, he used a borrowed large-format camera for this purpose for the first time. It was during this work that Evans developed his "documentary style." He photographed the buildings largely frontally, without stylistic sharpening (frontal approach to reality), and chose lighting conditions that seemed suitable to him, with which contours could be emphasized. He made a point of distinguishing himself from pure documentation (he cites police crime scene photography as an example) and saw himself as an artist.

Orders from magazines

After Evans completed several assignments for the Resettlement Administration (RA), it hired him in October 1935. This institution was established as part of President Roosevelt's New Deal policies to improve the lot of rural people, especially farmers and sharecroppers. Evans was an employee of the Historical Section, which was devoted to photographic and sociological documentation - in 1937 this organization came under the umbrella of the Farm Security Administration (FSA). Walker Evans' contract, at his insistence, was structured to largely follow his interests. He had stipulated that he would not work directly for the political (Evans: "This is a mere recording, and especially not propaganda ..." (according to Walker Evans at Work). He worked for the FSA until 1938 and mainly in the southern states.

In 1936, Walker Evans, together with the writer James Agee of Fortune magazine, was commissioned to do a reportage in the southern states. They were to report on the situation of land tenants. For this assignment, Evans took a leave of absence from the FSA. This came about on the condition that the rights to his photographs were assigned to the FSA. Evans traveled with Agee to Alabama. In Hale County, they contracted with three families to work together on the planned reportage. While Agee moved in with one of the families (under extremely poor conditions) for the period of the reportage, Evans rented a room in a hotel. The recordings made there by Agee and Evans ultimately did not meet the expectations of the clients, as the material was beyond the scope of a reportage. Agee then decided to publish a book, Let us now praise famous men (German edition: Preisen will ich die großen Männer), which appeared in 1941. The book begins abruptly with a selection of 31 Walker Evans' photographs. This is followed by Agee's text. Only 4000 copies of the first edition were sold, and the book was not well received. A total of 62 photographs are included in the 1960 reissue. Apparently due to the greater temporal distance from the Great Depression and the World War that had occurred, the book became a great success.

In 1938, at the suggestion of Lincoln Kirstein, MoMA mounted the first exhibition by a single photographer for Walker Evans: American Photographs. The hanging followed a concept by Walker Evans. The catalog, published in parallel, follows a different logic than the exhibition, contrary to common practice.

In the period that followed, Walker Evans lived from changing commissions. In 1941, he created the "Subway Series". With a hidden camera, he photographed subway passengers in New York who felt unobserved. This series was not published until 1966 under the title "Many are called". Also in 1941, he was commissioned to photographically illustrate a book about Florida. For this, he photographed vacationers in the "Sunshine State" in particular. On assignment for Fortune, he traveled to Bridgeport, Connecticut, New England, to document the city, which was thriving thanks to the war industry. In the same year, Evans found a job as a cinema critic at Time magazine, but hardly took any more photographs during the war until he was hired by Fortune magazine in 1945.

In 1946 Evans worked on "anonymous portraits." He photographed passersby in Detroit and Chicago from inconspicuous locations, mostly from a slight froggy perspective. Evans said he was interested in the people "as elements of the picture (...).... Don't believe in the truth of the portrait." In the Chicago series published in Fortune, he primarily pictured women shopping.

In 1945 Evans published a series of photographs from a moving train in Fortune. Evans saw this series as a continuation of the Subway photographs and emphasized the almost automatic creation of these photographs through accidental printing.

In 1955, he created The Beauty of Tools, a larger group of photographs published by Fortune. Here Evans pictured tools in neutral settings. Other contributions by him appeared there regularly until his departure from Fortune in 1965. In that year, Evans received a professorship in photography at the Department of Graphic Design at Yale University School of Art. This school is the art academy of Yale University.

In 1962, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, (MoMA) again exhibited a selection of the images it had already shown in 1938 under the title Walker Evans: American Photographs. In 1971, John Szarkowski curated Evans' first major retrospective for MoMA.

In 1972, Walker Evans discovered for himself the specific possibilities of color Polaroid instant photography with its inherent aesthetic after the Polaroid SX-70 camera came onto the market. Until then, Evans had largely rejected color photography, but between 1945 and 1965 he produced nine color portfolios of black-and-white and color photographs and another nine purely color portfolios: "A year ago I would have claimed that the color photograph was something vulgar. Such a contradiction is typical of me. Now I will devote all my care to my work with color."

The Estate of Walker Evans (the photographer's estate) ceded Walker Evans' estate, including all copyrights, to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1994. In 2000, Walker Evans was inducted into the St. Louis Walk of Fame for his importance as a major American photographer.

Walker Evans' importance as a photographer is largely based on the photographs he took during the Great Depression of the mid-1930s. The portraits of the three sharecropper families Fields, Borroughs and Tingle became icons in the history of photography. They are taken in the United States as documents of the identity of white Americans who, even in the most difficult circumstances, do not lose their morals and stand up for good. As a typical East Coast intellectual, Evans had a close relationship with literature, art history, and was a connoisseur of contemporary art developments, so that against such a background he could reflectively appreciate and critically evaluate his own photography and that of his contemporaries. Accordingly, he quickly acquired the views of European artists and photographers and understood them as an impulse for his own development. He decisively turned away from the understanding of photography of the leading American photographers up to that time, Edward Steichen and Alfred Stieglitz, and described their photographic attitude as "artiness". In this way, he referred to a conception that sought to establish photography as art by imitating processes of painting (pictorialism). Walker Evans developed an independent photographic language from his work documenting Victorian architecture. With his frontal and seemingly neutral approach, he is close to the procedures of art historians and monument conservators, but at the same time he is also a precursor of Bernd and Hilla Becher, who systematically documented industrial monuments, among other things, in the second half of the 1950s.

With his work at the FSA and reportage in Hale County, Evans continued the great American tradition of social documentary photographers, but used a very personal view of the people portrayed. When presenting his photographs in exhibitions and books, it is striking how important the subsequent editing of the images through cropping was to him. On the last night of his solo exhibition at MoMA, he must have worked with a craftsman from the museum to trim most of the photographs again for presentation. He presented them mounted on cardboard rather than in frames. At the same time, Walker Evans can be understood as a precursor of street photography. He undoubtedly had an influence on many successors. This is widely documented, for example, for Garry Winogrand, who himself points to this influence. The street photographer Helen Levitt, in turn, was Evans 1938

With his photographs of photographs (Bild im Bild), such as the photograph of the advertising image of a New York passport photographer studio, he questioned his medium in terms of how it was created. This gives rise to a certain precursor to Appropriation Art, namely the processing or reworking of other people's works of art. With his Polaroids, however, Walker Evans was no longer able to match the level of his earlier works.

In 1969, Evans was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Group exhibition


  1. Walker Evans
  2. Walker Evans
  3. American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Book of Members (PDF). Abgerufen am 18. April 2016.
  4. a b et c [PDF](en) Oral history interview with Walker Evans, 1971 Oct. 13-Dec. 23 par Paul Cummings, Smithsonian Institution
  5. ^ a b [1] Archived March 14, 2008, at the Wayback Machine
  6. ^ Walker Evans, by Jeff L. Rosenheim, Maria Morris Hambourg, Douglas Eklund, Mia Fineman (Princeton University Press, 2000) ISBN 0-691-05078-3, ISBN 978-0-691-05078-2
  7. ^ "Walker Evans Dies; Artist With Camera", The New York Times, April 11, 1975
  8. «xroads.virginia.edu». Archivado desde el original el 1 de marzo de 2009. Consultado el 12 de abril de 2009.
  9. «The Metropolitan Museum of Art - Special Exhibitions». web.archive.org. 14 de marzo de 2008. Archivado desde el original el 14 de marzo de 2008. Consultado el 15 de diciembre de 2018.

Please Disable Ddblocker

We are sorry, but it looks like you have an dblocker enabled.

Our only way to maintain this website is by serving a minimum ammount of ads

Please disable your adblocker in order to continue.

Dafato needs your help!

Dafato is a non-profit website that aims to record and present historical events without bias.

The continuous and uninterrupted operation of the site relies on donations from generous readers like you.

Your donation, no matter the size will help to continue providing articles to readers like you.

Will you consider making a donation today?