Born in Saint Louis in 1903, Walker Evans turned into a somewhat eccentric, solitary and caustic young man who yearned to be a writer.
This urge led him to Paris in 1926, but he saw this period as a failure: he felt like a nobody who was unable to find his niche in the intellectual Paris of the Twenties. In May 1927 he returned to New York and made friends with John Cheever and Lincoln Kirstein, although it was the German painter George Grosz who most influenced him at that time.
The aspiring writer then transferred the object of his obsession from words to images. “I became a passionate photographer. I couldn’t think about anything else. I caught it, like a virus. I thought about it and practised it all the time, every single day.”
He was looking for something “real”. Hence Paul Strand, August Sander and Eugène Atget, the last of whom he was introduced to by Berenice Abbott, were his points of reference.
In 1932, the Julien Levy Gallery sponsored his first exhibition. That same year, he illustrated the book The Crime of Cuba. And thus Evans gradually became defined by opposition: neither the “commerciality” of Edward Steichen nor the “artistic syndrome” of Alfred Stieglitz won him over. Nor did The New Vision, advocated by Lázsló Moholy-Nagy (forced angles, multiple exposures, photograms, playing with light and shutter speed, Man Ray’s experiments with rayographs, etc.). In contrast to small cameras that facilitated immediacy and speed, Evans was more inclined towards weighty cameras and tripods.
In the last issue of the magazine Camera Work (1917) he discovered Blind (1916), by Paul Strand: the woman with one eye clouded by a cataract; the rawness of the exposed yet absent gaze and the lack of embellishment jolted him. “This was real”.
For more than thirty years, between 1934 and 1965, he worked for Fortune magazine as a photographer, designer and columnist which formed the backbone of his career. In 1935 he agreed to join the project directed by Roy Stryker from the Farm Security Administration, for which photographers such as Dorothea Lange and Russell Lee were also hired to record the state of the country in the Great Depression. However, he quickly fell out with Stryker and abandoned the project to pursue his photography independently.
In the summer of 1936 he worked with the writer James Agee on an assignment for Fortune magazine that would end up becoming his most transcendent work. The portrait of three Alabama families reflected the drama of the Great Depression: a society that was attempting to recover but which, at the same time, was on its knees; a portrait of men and women who were determined to survive. It was so raw that Fortune decided not to publish it, and this ground-breaking work has since become a photography classic. Finally, in 1941, the images were published in the form of an independent article at the beginning of James Agee’s book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. These photographs, among Evans’ most well-known ones, achieved iconic status, partly due to the relationship between them, presented as a unit within a sequence. By putting his photographic work in this order, Evans equipped himself with a new range of expressive opportunities – of harmonies and dissonances, of juxtaposition and isolation – that could not exist for a single photograph. Their layout within a sequence provides an unparalleled opportunity to evaluate Evans’ work and his own conception of it.
The fact that Evans and Agee were, to a large extent, the protagonists of the Let Us Now Praise Famous Men narrative meant that the project was characterized by a certain degree of self-awareness. However, their two voices turned out to be unusual adventuring companions. As several researchers have pointed out, the sequence of images without texts that precedes Agee’s text seems to prepare the reader for a cold and even impartial documentary perspective, while the eloquence of Agee’s writing presents a very different kind of experience. Even in Evans’ photographs we can appreciate an irresolute combination of the “artistic” – and self-referential – and the “documentary” focus that looks outwards, between physical and emotional, between proximity and remoteness. In the first pages of the text of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Agee writes that he and Evans were “spies, moving delicately among the enemy”. This characterization draws attention to the ambivalent nature of the project, and even questions social documentation as an exercise of representation. The association between Evans and Agee resulted in a work of words and images that addressed the debate on why reformers saw themselves as somehow equipped to declare their superiority to the recipients of their aid, and on how appropriate it is to turn suffering into a form of aesthetic expression.
Evans was a friend and mentor of the photographer Helen Levitt, and between 1938 and 1941 the two of them embarked on a great adventure: every day they used to go down to the subway and take photos secretly. Evans had a 35 mm Contax strapped to his chest, with the viewfinder secured imperceptibly between the buttons of his overcoat. The shooter was hidden in his sleeve. He was looking for the pure portrait. “In the subway, even more than when in lone bedrooms, where there are mirrors, people’s faces are in naked repose,” he remarked.
These portraits remained unpublished for twenty-five years until, in 1966, Houghton Mifflin published the book Many Are Called featuring 89 of the photographs, accompanied by a text written almost thirty years earlier by Agee. In that same year, the MoMA put on the exhibition entitled Subway Photographs.
Edward Steichen and John Szarkowski were key to his career. Between 1952 and 1963, Steichen organized the exhibition Diogenes with a Camera. The third one in the series (1956) showed Evans along with Manuel Álvarez Bravo, August Sander and Paul Strand. As far as Evans was concerned, the fact of being shown alongside two such inspirational photographers confirmed the path he had chosen.
Szarkowski took over from Steichen as director of photography in 1962 and included some of the artist’s work in two key exhibitions: The Photographer’s Eye (1964) and Looking at Photographs: 100 Pictures from the Collection of the Museum of Modern Art (1973). Szarkowski cited the power of his gaze as his defining feature: “It is difficult to know now with certainty whether Evans recorded the America of his youth or invented it.”
In 1959 Evans won the John Guggenheim Fellowship Award and the 1970s would see his definitive recognition. He was awarded the Artist-in-Residence grant from Dartmouth College in New Hampshire (1972), the Mark Rothko Foundation Grant (1973) and the Distinguished Service Award from the American Academy Institute (1974). Yale University named him emeritus professor for the 1974-1975 academic year.
A more mature Evans speculated: “Stare. It is the way to educate your eye, and more. Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long.”
He died in New York in 1975. In 1994, the Metropolitan Museum of Art acquired his archive and in 2000 put on a major retrospective of his work.
“Nothing was to be imposed on experience; the truth was to be discovered, not constructed.” Walker Evans imposed his clean and precise view of the world, just like the steely slice of a scalpel.