Walker Evans: Capturing the American Experience

Published on:

March 5, 2023

Contents

Introduction to Walker Evans

Walker Evans (1903-1975) was one of the most significant American photographers of the 20th century. Born in Missouri, Evans developed a fascination with the visual arts at a young age, and by his early twenties, he had already begun to experiment with photography.

Evans is best known for his unique style, which focused on capturing the gritty reality of American life during the Great Depression. His photographs, which often featured ordinary people and urban landscapes, served as a powerful social commentary and document of the era.

Throughout his career, Evans was drawn to the marginalized and dispossessed, capturing their humanity in a way that was both honest and unflinching. His photographs of sharecroppers in the rural South, taken in collaboration with writer James Agee for the book “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” are considered some of his most powerful and enduring works.

Evans was also known for his use of the camera as a tool for objective documentation, eschewing the conventions of art photography in favor of a more straightforward approach. His images were often composed with an eye towards clarity and precision, and he placed great emphasis on the technical aspects of photography.

Despite his uncompromising approach, Evans remained a highly influential figure in the world of photography throughout his life and beyond. His work has had a profound impact on subsequent generations of photographers, many of whom have been inspired by his commitment to capturing the reality of American life in all its complexity and nuance.

Early Life and Education

Walker Evans was born on November 3, 1903, in St. Louis, Missouri, to a wealthy family. His parents separated when he was young, and he spent much of his childhood shuttling between his mother’s home in Toledo, Ohio, and his father’s home in Kenilworth, Illinois.

As a young man, Evans showed an early interest in the arts, experimenting with painting and drawing before ultimately discovering photography. In 1926, he bought his first camera, a secondhand Kodak, and began taking pictures in earnest.

Evans attended Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, where he studied literature, art history, and French. While at Williams, he became involved in the literary and artistic circles on campus, where he met future writer and critic Lincoln Kirstein.

Despite his interest in photography, Evans did not initially plan to pursue it as a career. After graduating from Williams in 1927, he worked as a writer and editor for various publications, including a short stint at Time magazine.

However, photography remained a constant passion, and in 1929, Evans traveled to Paris to study the work of European photographers. He was particularly influenced by the work of Eugene Atget, whose photographs of Parisian street scenes and architecture had a profound impact on his own approach to photography.

Upon returning to the United States, Evans continued to pursue photography as a serious pursuit, producing a series of images of New York City that would later be published in his first book, “American Photographs” (1938).

Despite his lack of formal training in photography, Evans quickly gained a reputation as one of the most talented and innovative photographers of his generation. His work would go on to influence countless others in the field, and his legacy as one of the most important American photographers of the 20th century endures to this day.

Farm Security Administration Work

In 1935, Walker Evans was hired by the Farm Security Administration (FSA) to document the effects of the Great Depression on American life. This was a government-funded program that aimed to provide assistance to struggling farmers and rural communities.

During his time with the FSA, Evans traveled throughout the United States, capturing images of poverty and hardship that would become some of the most iconic photographs of the era. He photographed sharecroppers in the rural South, miners in West Virginia, and families living in impoverished conditions across the country.

One of Evans’ most famous images from this period is “Migrant Mother,” a portrait of Florence Owens Thompson, a 32-year-old mother of seven children who was living in a migrant worker camp in California. The image, which shows Thompson with a stoic expression and her children clinging to her shoulders, has become an enduring symbol of the hardships faced by many Americans during the Great Depression.

Another of Evans’ notable works from this period is “Alabama Cotton Tenant Farmer’s Wife,” which depicts a woman standing in front of a dilapidated shack in rural Alabama. The image is striking for its stark simplicity and the way it captures the resilience and dignity of its subject, despite her difficult circumstances.

Throughout his time with the FSA, Evans remained committed to capturing the reality of American life in all its complexity and nuance. His images provide a powerful window into the struggles of the Great Depression, and remain a testament to his enduring legacy as one of the most important photographers of the 20th century.

Subway Portraits

In the late 1930s, Walker Evans embarked on a lesser-known project that would become one of his most intriguing and enigmatic bodies of work: photographing passengers on the New York City subway.

For Evans, the subway offered a unique opportunity to capture the diverse range of people who made up the city’s population. His images, which were taken surreptitiously with a hidden camera, offer a glimpse into the daily lives of ordinary New Yorkers, and provide a fascinating window into the social and cultural dynamics of the city during this period.

One of the most striking aspects of Evans’ subway portraits is their raw intimacy. By capturing his subjects unaware and unposed, he was able to reveal a side of them that was often hidden from public view. His images show people lost in thought, lost in conversation, lost in their own worlds. They reveal the ways in which we are all connected and disconnected, all at the same time.

Another notable aspect of Evans’ subway portraits is their formal rigor. Despite their apparent spontaneity, his images are carefully composed and rigorously edited, with a sharp attention to detail and a focus on the subtle nuances of gesture and expression.

Taken as a whole, Evans’ subway portraits represent a unique and powerful contribution to the photographic canon. They reveal a side of American life that is often overlooked or ignored, and offer a compelling testament to the enduring power of the medium to capture the complexity and nuance of the human experience.

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

In the mid-1930s, Walker Evans was commissioned by Fortune magazine to document the lives of sharecroppers in the rural South. This assignment would eventually lead to one of his most celebrated collaborations: the book “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.”

The book, which was published in 1941, was a collaboration between Evans and writer James Agee, and aimed to provide a vivid and unflinching portrait of the lives of poor rural families during the Great Depression. The book’s title is taken from a line in the biblical book of Ecclesiasticus, which reads: “Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us.”

Evans’ photographs, which were taken during two trips to Alabama in 1936 and 1937, provide a powerful visual record of the lives of the families he encountered, capturing the harsh realities of poverty and the struggles faced by those living in a system of sharecropping.

Agee’s text, which is often poetic and lyrical in its language, provides a deeply empathetic and emotional portrait of the same families, exploring their inner lives and their struggles to maintain their dignity and sense of self in the face of overwhelming hardship.

Together, the photographs and text of “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” form a powerful testament to the human spirit and the enduring resilience of those who struggle against all odds. The book has become a seminal work of American documentary photography, and remains a testament to the power of collaboration and the enduring legacy of Walker Evans as one of the most important photographers of the 20th century.

American Photographs

In 1938, Walker Evans published “American Photographs,” a landmark book that showcased his unique vision of American life and became one of the most influential photography books of the 20th century.

The book, which was accompanied by an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, featured a selection of Evans’ photographs taken between 1929 and 1937, and presented them in a carefully curated sequence that emphasized their thematic and formal coherence.

What sets “American Photographs” apart is Evans’ singular vision of American life. His images, which often feature ordinary people and everyday objects, reveal the beauty and complexity of the American landscape, capturing a sense of the country’s history, geography, and social dynamics.

Throughout the book, Evans’ images are arranged in thematic groupings that reflect his interest in the ways in which American culture and society intersect. He explores themes such as urban and rural life, the built environment, and the impact of industrialization on the landscape, offering a nuanced and multifaceted portrait of American life during the 1930s.

One of the most striking aspects of “American Photographs” is Evans’ use of form and composition. His images are often marked by a stark simplicity and a focus on the graphic qualities of his subjects, emphasizing their abstract and geometric properties. This approach creates images that are both visually compelling and intellectually engaging, and which invite the viewer to consider the deeper meaning and significance of the subjects they depict.

Taken as a whole, “American Photographs” is a testament to Evans’ enduring influence on the field of photography. His vision of American life, as presented in this seminal work, has inspired generations of photographers and continues to resonate with viewers today.

Polaroids

In the 1970s, towards the end of his life, Walker Evans began to experiment with Polaroid photography, producing a series of images that were unlike anything he had done before.

Evans’ Polaroids are marked by their abstract and surreal qualities, with the artist using the instant film medium to create images that are distorted, fragmented, and otherworldly. His images often feature everyday objects or scenes, such as a coffee cup or a tree, which he then transforms into something strange and unfamiliar.

One of the most striking aspects of Evans’ Polaroids is their painterly quality. His images have a softness and a delicacy to them that is unusual for photography, with the colors bleeding and blending in unexpected ways. This creates an effect that is dreamlike and surreal, as if we are seeing the world through a veil of mist.

Another notable aspect of Evans’ Polaroids is their emphasis on texture and surface. His images often feature close-up views of surfaces, such as a wall or a piece of fabric, which he then manipulates and distorts in order to create an entirely new image. This creates a sense of depth and tactile quality that is unusual for photography, and which invites the viewer to engage with the image on a more visceral level.

Taken as a whole, Evans’ Polaroids represent a departure from his earlier work, and demonstrate his willingness to experiment and push the boundaries of his chosen medium. They are a testament to his enduring curiosity and his ongoing commitment to exploring the possibilities of photography, even as he approached the end of his life.

Architecture and Landscape

Throughout his career, Walker Evans maintained a fascination with architecture and the built environment, and his photographs often feature buildings, bridges, and other man-made structures as their subject matter.

One of Evans’ most notable bodies of work in this regard is his photographs of American vernacular architecture, which he took in the 1930s and which were later published in the book “American Photographs.” These images capture the idiosyncrasies and quirks of everyday buildings, from small-town storefronts to rural houses and barns, and offer a glimpse into the ways in which architecture shapes and reflects the cultural and social values of a given place and time.

Evans was also interested in the ways in which industrialization and urbanization were transforming the American landscape, and his photographs often capture the impact of these forces on the built environment. His images of New York City, for example, are marked by their focus on the city’s architecture and infrastructure, from its towering skyscrapers to its intricate network of bridges and tunnels.

Another notable aspect of Evans’ approach to architecture and landscape is his interest in the formal qualities of his subjects. His images are often marked by a rigorous attention to composition and structure, with a focus on the interplay between light and shadow, line and form. This creates images that are both visually compelling and intellectually engaging, inviting the viewer to consider the deeper meaning and significance of the buildings and landscapes depicted.

Taken as a whole, Evans’ photographs of architecture and landscape are a testament to his enduring curiosity and his ongoing commitment to exploring the complexities and contradictions of American life. They offer a compelling vision of the built environment as a site of social and cultural struggle, and demonstrate the power of photography to capture the essence of a place and a time.

The Civil Rights Movement

In the 1960s, Walker Evans became involved in documenting the Civil Rights Movement, producing a series of photographs that provide a powerful visual record of this pivotal moment in American history.

One of Evans’ most notable contributions to this effort was his photographs of the Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965. These images, which were taken in collaboration with the photographer James Karales, capture the courage and determination of the marchers, who were protesting for voting rights for African Americans in the face of violent opposition from local authorities.

Evans’ photographs of the marches are marked by their emotional intensity and their sense of immediacy. His images capture the chaos and turmoil of the events, from the crowds of marchers pressing forward to the police and National Guard troops standing in their way. They also reveal the sense of solidarity and community that developed among the marchers, who were joined by activists from across the country and from all walks of life.

In addition to his photographs of the Selma to Montgomery marches, Evans also produced a series of images documenting African American life in the South during this period. These images, which were taken in collaboration with the writer and activist James Agee, provide a powerful record of the social and economic conditions faced by African Americans in the region, and serve as a testament to the ongoing struggle for civil rights and social justice.

Taken as a whole, Evans’ photographs of the Civil Rights Movement are a testament to his ongoing commitment to documenting the struggles and triumphs of American life. They demonstrate the power of photography to bear witness to history, and remind us of the enduring importance of the fight for equality and justice in American society.

Portraiture

While Walker Evans is perhaps best known for his documentary and street photography, he also had a gift for portraiture, and his images of people are among his most striking and memorable works.

One of the key elements of Evans’ approach to portraiture is his emphasis on capturing the essence of his subjects. Rather than trying to create a traditional portrait that captures a person’s physical likeness, Evans was more interested in capturing their character, their personality, and their individuality.

To do this, Evans often used a straightforward, unadorned style that emphasized the natural qualities of his subjects. He preferred simple, direct compositions that allowed the viewer to focus on the subject’s face and expression, and he often avoided using props or elaborate backdrops that could distract from the person’s individuality.

Another notable aspect of Evans’ approach to portraiture is his sensitivity to his subjects’ emotions and experiences. His images capture the depth and complexity of human emotion, from the quiet dignity of his sharecropper subjects to the weariness and determination of his Civil Rights Movement activists.

Finally, Evans’ approach to portraiture is marked by his deep humanism and his respect for the dignity and worth of all people. His images celebrate the diversity and richness of human experience, and remind us of the importance of empathy and compassion in our interactions with others.

Taken as a whole, Evans’ portraits are a testament to his profound understanding of the human condition, and his ability to capture the essence of his subjects in a way that is both deeply empathetic and intellectually engaging. They are a powerful reminder of the enduring power of photography to capture the beauty and complexity of the human experience.

Influence and Legacy

Walker Evans’ impact on the field of photography is difficult to overstate. His singular vision of American life, as captured in his documentary, street, and portrait photography, has had a profound influence on subsequent generations of photographers and artists, and remains a touchstone for anyone interested in the medium.

One of the key elements of Evans’ legacy is his commitment to using photography as a tool for social commentary and documentation. His images capture the complexities and contradictions of American life, from the struggles of the Great Depression to the social upheavals of the Civil Rights Movement, and serve as a powerful testament to the ongoing struggle for justice and equality in American society.

Another notable aspect of Evans’ influence is his formal rigor and his emphasis on the graphic and compositional qualities of his images. His use of light and shadow, line and form, and his sensitivity to the graphic qualities of his subjects, have inspired generations of photographers to explore the formal possibilities of the medium.

Finally, Evans’ work has also had an enduring impact on the way we see and understand the world around us. His images offer a compelling vision of American life that is both specific and universal, capturing the beauty, complexity, and contradictions of the human experience in all its richness and nuance.

Taken as a whole, Evans’ legacy is a testament to the enduring power of photography to capture the essence of the human experience, and to inspire and challenge us to see the world in new and different ways. His work remains a touchstone for anyone interested in the medium, and a powerful reminder of the ongoing importance of social commentary and documentation in art and in life.

Collecting Walker Evans Photographs

Walker Evans’ photographs are highly sought after by collectors, with prices ranging from a few thousand dollars for smaller vintage prints to hundreds of thousands of dollars for rare or iconic images.

When looking to acquire Evans’ work, it’s important to be aware of the market for his photographs and to do your research to ensure that you are getting an authentic print. Here are some tips for collectors interested in building a collection of Walker Evans photographs:

  1. Do your research: Familiarize yourself with Evans’ work and the different types of prints that are available, including vintage prints, posthumous prints, and reproductions. Look for reputable dealers and auction houses that specialize in photography, and be sure to ask for information on the print’s provenance and condition.

  2. Look for authenticity: Authenticating a Walker Evans print can be challenging, as many of his images were printed in multiple editions and formats. Look for hallmarks of authenticity, such as the signature or stamp of the artist or estate, and be wary of prints that appear to be in perfect condition or that have no signs of age or wear.

  3. Consider pricing trends: The value of Walker Evans’ photographs can vary widely depending on factors such as rarity, condition, provenance, and the type of photographic image you are considering buying, such as an original silver gelatin print or a later giclee commercial print photograph. Keep an eye on pricing trends and consult with experts in the field to get a sense of what a particular image might be worth.

  4. Build a collection: Consider your goals and interests when building a collection of Walker Evans’ work. You might focus on a particular theme or period, or on acquiring rare or iconic images. Be prepared to invest time and money in building your collection, and be patient in your search for the right images.

In the end, collecting Walker Evans’ photographs can be a rewarding and enriching experience, offering a glimpse into one of the most important and influential careers in the history of photography. By doing your research and being vigilant about authenticity and pricing, you can build a collection that reflects your passion for this remarkable artist and his enduring legacy.

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