November 3, 1903: Walker Evans:
“Stare. It is the way to educate your eye, and more. Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long.”
Walker Evans is one of the most influential artists of the 20th century. His elegant, clear photographs and writings inspired the next generations of artists, including Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, and Lee Friedlander. A precursor to the documentary tradition in American photography, Evans had the ability to see the present as if it were already the past, and to turn his historically tuned vision into art. His subject was mostly expressions of people in small towns. From the late 1920s to the early 1970s, Evans recorded the American scene with nuance and precision, creating a visual catalog of modern America in the making. Evans remains as dauntingly elusive as his work is sparingly direct. Evans was a leading pioneer of pure photography without any romanticism.
Evans had very close relationships with many men, including the artist Hanns Skolle and Ben Shahn, the arts impresario Lincoln Kirstein, and writers James Agee and John Cheever. During the early period of his time with Cheever and Kirstein, in the early 30s, the relationships were sexual.
A slight, fastidious, good-looking, charming man, Evans moved to Paris in 1926, at 22 years old, intending to be a writer. The next year he moved to New York City, with the idea of having a career as a photographer.
Evans took some of the most empathetic photographs of the rural poor during the Depression, he indicated early on that he had no illusions about people. In 1931, he wrote to Skolle:
“I think the human race should be kicked around a great deal more than it is.”
In the summer of 1936, Evans traveled to the American South with Agee, who had been assigned to write an article on tenant farmers by Fortune magazine; Evans was assigned as the photographer. Although the magazine rejected Agee’s long text about three families in Alabama, the collaboration became Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), an ode to direct observation. Its 500 pages of words and pictures is a volatile mix of descriptions and intense autobiographical writing, which is now considered one of the great achievements of 20th century American arts. The photographs for Let Us Now Praise Famous Men are stunningly honest representations of the faces and clothing of farm families living on a hillside outside of Greensboro, Alabama. As a series, they encapsulate the entire tragedy of the Great Depression; individually, they are intimate, transcendent, and enigmatic.
Evans stayed at Fortune for almost 20 years. He conceived and executed his own ideas for photo essays, taking the pictures and writing the captions and text.
Evans made all the right connections yet cultivated the mystique of being a purist. He wouldn’t go to his own openings or allow publicity shots of himself. He refused to photograph celebrities. He wouldn’t politicize his mind or his work, believing that an artist could reveal the human condition, not alleviate it. His romantic entanglements were right off of television soap operas. He enjoyed a special arrangement involving the notorious Agee and Agee’s wife. Evans attributed the sexual goings-on among his friends to be the theme of the times, later writing:
“Everybody by rote went to bed with everybody else, and the result was an emotional desert and confusion.”
In 1941, Evans finally married Jane Ninas, a woman whom he had an on-and-off affair with for years. The marriage lasted for a decade.
In 1945, Evans wrote:
“My work is like making love, if you’ll forgive me. It has to spring from the moment, from what I feel at the moment. That’s all.”
Shot mainly in black-and-white, without gimmickry, Evans’s photographs were of sharecroppers, automobile graveyards, faded signs, Western ghost towns, rumpled tenement beds, and filthy factory windows. He believed that photography was the art of seeing unblinkingly; and he stared the thwarted promises of American society straight in the face, and they stared right back.
His photographs are detached and understated, but they all carry his trademark of exactness. Evans’s work affected the way most Americans saw the 20th century, especially the 1930s with a greater artistry than the Hollywood films of the period. Evans’ viewpoint is embodied in the eloquent, uncaptioned photographs he did for the Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression and in those pictures that accompanied Agee’s embittered words in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.
He also took many photographs of New York City subway riders with a camera concealed in his topcoat. These pictures, revealing the mental states of the subjects, were published in Many Are Called (1966), with some of them also exhibited to great acclaim at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) the same year.
Like Henri Cartier Bresson, another great modern photographer, Evans did not go in for fancy equipment. He used a battered view camera with an old and extremely slow lens. He made his contact prints with nothing more than a few trays, a bottle of developer and a bottle of hypo solution.
“Photography isn’t a matter of taking pictures. It’s a matter of having an eye. With a camera, it’s all or nothing. You either get what you’re after at once, or what you do has to be worthless. The essence is done very quietly with a flash of the mind, and with a machine. The secret of photography is, the camera takes on the personality and the character of the handler. The mind works on the machine through it.”
Evans was born in St. Louis and grew up in suburban Chicago and when his parents separated, he was sent to Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusets where he was attracted to literature.
He attended Williams College, but dropped out and left for Paris, auditing classes at the Sorbonne, where he read Gustav Flaubert and Charles Baudelaire, and looked at art. Evans:
“In recollection, I was really in Paris to absorb intellectual stimulus. The best training in the world. I wanted so much to write that I couldn’t write a word.”
He turned to photography, discovering that he felt comfortable with a camera in his hand. His esthetic viewpoint was disdain for the romantic work of Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen, two of the most highly praised photographers of the era. For Evans it was a rebellion against what he saw as commercialism and artiness:
“I set out to achieve the elevated expression, the literate, authoritative and transcendent statement which a photograph allows.”
In 1928, he worked as a Wall Street stock clerk, where he met and had an affair with poet Hart Crane. His first published work was three photos that served as illustrations for Crane’s epic poem The Bridge. Evans was fascinated by architecture, and he thought of photography as one way of preserving it. Evans and Lincoln Kirstein photographed Victorian houses in and around Boston, many of which were later shown at the Museum of Modern Art.
His work drew a wider audience when 31 Evans photographs appeared in The Crime Of Cuba (1931) by Carleton Beals, a book about ordinary Cubans under a dictatorial regime.
From 1935 to 1938, Evans was a roaming social historian with the photographic unit of President Franklin Roosevelt‘s New Deal. He produced hundreds of pictures of rural poverty that were finally collected in 1973 in Walker Evans: Photographs for the Farm Security Administration.
After his work for the Agee book, Evans took a job as a writer at Time magazine in 1942 and 1943. Walker:
“Two years, and I was just drained dry. Hard work, and also intellectually degrading and insulting. You had to figure out how not to die, and that was useful too; it toughened you.”
Evans died at his apartment in New Haven in 1975. A hard drinker with a smoking habit, he was taken by a brain hemorrhage at 71 years old. At the time, he was professor emeritus of Graphic Arts at Yale’s School of Art and Architecture.
In 1994, The Estate of Walker Evans handed over its holdings to The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Met is the sole copyright holder for all works of art in all media by Evans except for 1,000 negatives in collection of the Library of Congress produced for the Resettlement Administration and Farm Security Administration. Evans’s RA / FSA works are in the public domain.
The Museum of Modern Art and the Getty Museum in Los Angeles mounted a retrospective exhibitions that included hundreds of his photographs this year.