Historical Photographers: Walker Evans

To kick 2016 off with a bang, I will be introducing the next article in the Historical Photographers series by talking about the historical photographer, Walker Evans.

Walker Evans (3rd November 1903 – 10th April 1975)

Walker Evans was an American photographer who was best known for his work for the Farm Security Administration (FSA), where he would document the effects of the Great Depression (a.k.a. The Wall Street Crash). Much of his works from the FSA period used the large 8 x 10-inch camera. He had said that his goal as a photographer was to make pictures that would be “literate, authoritative, transcendent”. Many of his works are in the permanent collections of museums, and have also been the subject of retrospectives at many institutions, such as The Metropolitan Museum of Art, or the George Eastman House.

Walker Evans’ Biography

Early Life

Born in St. Louis, Missouri, to Jessie (née Crane) and Walker, Walker Evans had come from an affluent family, and his father was an advertising director. He had spent his youth in Toledo, in Chicago, and also in New York City. There, he had attended The Loomis Institute and the Mercersburg Academy, before graduating from the Phillips Academy in Andover, in Massachusetts, in 1922.

He had studied French Literature at Williams College, for a year, and spent much of his time in the school’s library, before dropping out. After spending a year in Paris in 1926, he had returned to the United States to join the edgy literary and art crowd in New York City. John Cheever, Hart Crane, and Lincoln Kirstein were among his friends, and he was a clerk for a stockbroker firm in Wall Street from 1927 to 1929.

Walker Evans took up photography as a hobby in 1928, and around that time, he was living in Ossining, in New York, and his influences had included Eugéne Atget and August Sander. In 1930, he had published three photographs (Brooklyn Bridge), in the poetry book: “The Bridge”, by Hart Crane, and in 1931, he had taken on a photo series of Victorian houses in the Boston vicinity, which was sponsored by Lincoln Kirstein. In 1933, he had taken photographs in Cuba as part of an assignment for the publisher of Carleton Beals’ then-forthcoming book: “The Crime of Cuba“, in which he would photograph the revolt against the dictator, Gerardo Machado, and in Cuba, Walker Evans had briefly known Ernest Hemingway.

Photography During the Depression Era

In 1935, Walker Evans had spent two months at first on a fixed-term photographic campaign for the Resettlement Administration (RA) in West Virginia and Pennsylvania, and from October onwards, he would continue to do photographic work for the RA, and later on, the Farm Security Administration (FSA), primarily in the Southern United States.

In the Summer of 1936, while he was on leave from the FSA, Walker Evans and the writer, James Agee, were sent by the Fortune Magazine on an assignment to Hale County, in Alabama, for a story that the magazine had subsequently opted not to run, and in 1941, Evans’ photographs and Agee’s text which detailed the duo’s stay with three white tenant families in Southern Alabama during the Great Depression were published with the groundbreaking book: “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men”.

It’s detailed account of the three farming families had painted a deeply moving portrait of rural poverty, and by noting a similarity to the Beals’ book, the critic, Janet Malcolm, in her 1980 book: “Diana & Nikon: Essays on the Aesthetic of Photography”, had pointed out the contradiction between a kind of anguished dissonance in Agee’s prose, as well as the quiet, magisterial beauty of Evans’ photographs of the sharecroppers.

The three families that were headed by Bud Fields, the Floyd Burroughs and Frank Tingle, had lived in the Hale County town of Akron, in Alabama, and the owners of the land in which the families had worked had told them that Walker Evans and James Agee were “Soviet agents,”, although Allie Mae Burroughs, who was Floyd’s wife, had recalled during later interviews that she discounted that information.

Evans’ photographs of the families had made them the icons of the Depression-Era misery, including poverty, and in September 2005, Fortune had revisited the Hale County, including the descendants of the three families for its 75th Anniversary issue. Charles Burroughs, who was just four years old at that time when Walker Evans and James Agee visited the family, was “still angry” at them for not even sending the family a copy of the book; the son of Floyd Burroughs was also reportedly angry because the family had been: “cast in a light that they couldn’t do any better, that they were doomed, ignorant”.

Walker Evans had continued to work for the FSA until 1938, and that same year, an exhibition, titled: “Walker Evans: American Photographs”, was held at The Museum of Modern Art, in New York. This was the first exhibition in this museum that was devoted to the work of a single photographer, and the catalogue had included an accompanying essay that was made by Lincoln Kirstein, whom Evans had befriended in his early days in New York.

In 1938, Walker Evans also took his first photographs in the New York subway with a camera that was hidden in his coat. These would be collected in book form in 1966, under the title: “Many are Called”. In 1938 and 1939, Walker Evans had worked with and also mentored Helen Levitt.

Walker Evans, like many other photographers, such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, had rarely spent time in the darkroom, making prints from his own negatives, and he only very loosely supervised the making of the prints of most of his photographs, where he would sometimes only attach the handwritten notes to the negatives, with instructions on some aspects of the printing procedure.

Walker Evans’ Later Work

Walker Evans was also a passionate reader and writer, and in 1945, he became a staff writer at TIME Magazine. Shortly afterwards, he became an editor for the Fortune Magazine company through 1965. In that year also, he became a professor of photography on the faculty for Graphic Design at the Yale University School of Art.

In one of his last photographic projects, Walker Evans had completed a black and white portfolio of the Brown Brothers Harriman & Co.’s offices and partners for publication in “Partners in Banking,” and published it in 1968 to celebrate the private bank’s 150th Anniversary. In 1973 and 1974, Evans had also shot a long series with the then-new Polaroid SX-70 camera, after his age and declining health had made it difficult for him to work with elaborate equipment.

The first definitive retrospective of his photographs, whose works would “individually evoke an incontrovertible sense of specific places, and collectively a sense of America,”, and according to a press release, they were on view at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1971. These were selected by John Szarkowski and were simply titled: “Walker Evans”.

Walker Evans’ Death & Legacy

Walker Evans had died at his home in New Haven, in Connecticut, in 1975.

In 1994, The Estate of Walker Evans had handed over its holdings to New York City’s The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Metropolitan Museum of Art is the sole copyright holder for all works of art in all media by Walker Evans, but the only exception is a group of approximately 1,000 negatives in collection of the Library of Congress, which were produced for the Resettlement Administration (RA) / the Farm Security Administration (FSA). Walker Evans’ RA / FSA works are also in the public domain.

In 2000, Walker Evans was inducted into the St. Louis Walk of Fame.

The third Historical Photographer case on Walker Evans, and the first Historical Photographer case for 2016 comes to an end.

Please feel free to submit feedback based on what you thought of Walker Evans and his photography career. Your feedback is much appreciated.

Alex Smithson

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