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Walker Evans (American, 1903–1975)

About this artist

Source: Oxford University Press

American photographer and writer. He grew up in Kenilworth, a suburb of Chicago, but moved to New York with his mother after his parents separated. Primarily interested in literature, he sat in on lectures at the Sorbonne in Paris (1926–7), visited museums and bookshops, and thought of becoming a writer. In 1928 he acquired a camera and, out of frustration over his inability to find work and develop a literary means of expression, he decided to become a photographer. Intermittent assignments instigated by friends such as Lincoln Kirstein made it possible for him to live a bohemian life in Greenwich Village, where he met the writers Hart Crane (1899–1932) and James Agee (1909–55) and the artist Ben Shahn, with whom he worked and shared a house for a short time. Within this circle he found his early influences.

Evans began the work that brought him recognition and a modest living in 1935. In 18 months he completed all of the images for ‘Let us now praise famous men’ (Cambridge, MA, 1941), a collaborative project with James Agee devoted to the lives of the sharecropper families of the south, and a large portion of the plates for American Photographs (New York, 1938), his panorama of the USA. At the same time he was active with the Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographic team under the directorship of Roy Stryker (1893–1975). Allie May Burroughs, Hale County, Alabama (Alabama Cotton Tenant Farmer’s Wife) (1936; Chicago, IL, A. Inst., see First and Last, pl. 73) became a lasting symbol of the victims of poverty caused by the Depression.

Evans was often in disagreement with Stryker over the goals of the FSA programme and left in 1937, but the following year MOMA, New York, recognized his work with a major exhibition at the time of the publication of American Photographs, a book that would have a profound influence on the work of younger photographers such as Robert Frank and on documentary photography as a whole. His carefully composed views, ranging from exterior and interior still-lifes, for example Burroughs Kitchen, Hale County, Alabama (1936; New York, MOMA, see First and Last, pl. 77), to tattered billboards, are testimony to the beauty and vivid presence he found in the most common themes. Evans’s preference for light that illuminated flat, frontal, almost airless images can be seen in Moundville, Alabama (Corrugated Tin Façade) (1936; Washington, DC, Lib. Congr.).

In 1943 Evans went to work for Time magazine as a writer but soon moved to Fortune, where he was both a writer and a photographer (1945–65). The Fortune years spanned almost half of his career, and more than 400 of his photographs were published by the magazine; Fortune had in fact commissioned Evans as early as 1936. However, much of Evans’s work for Fortune was less accessible and often denigrated by Evans himself, who never accepted his role in commercial photography. Among the portfolios that Fortune did publish, many accompanied by Evans’s own texts, were Labor Anonymous (Nov 1946) and Chicago: A Camera Exploration (Feb 1947). Relative autonomy at the magazine allowed him to continue and amplify his work of the 1930s. His subject remained the American vernacular, the changes wrought by the passage of time and the grandeur of simple things. He produced his first colour work for Fortune in 1945, although he later rejected it, asserting that colour was vulgar. After 1950 he created 27 portfolios, 14 of which included colour work. However, one of his most extraordinary portfolios was the black-and-white Beauties of the Common Tool (July 1955; see 1977 exh. cat., nos 43–8). For the project he used an 8×10 view camera and made his own prints for the almost full-page reproductions. Astonishing icons, these works remain among the most arresting artists’ photographs ever to appear in a commercial publication.

In 1965 Evans retired from professional photography and became a professor at Yale University. If a particular body of his work pointed the way for photographers of the 1950s and 1960s, it was probably the street and subway photographs of the 1930s and 1940s, such as Corner of State and Randolph Streets, Chicago (1946; see Szarkowski, p. 161), which embraced the element of chance long before it became a central issue in American art during the late 1950s, rather than the still, powerful evocations of a passing America. Towards the end of his life he returned to poignant interior still-lifes, such as Walpole, Maine (1962; see First and Last, pl. 192), which evoked his early FSA images and testified to an extraordinarily constant vision that seemed to distil the essence of time and place.

Constance W. Glenn
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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