Walker Evans

Small Town Storefront, 1935

Walker Evans (1903-1975) was born in St. Louis, Missouri.  He dabbled with painting as a child, collected picture postcards, and made snapshots of his family and friends with a small Kodak camera. After a year at Williams College, he quit school and moved to New York City, finding work in bookstores and at the New York Public Library. He also took up the camera and gradually redirected his aesthetic impulses into the medium of photography. His principal subject was the vernacular—the indigenous expressions of a people found in roadside stands, cheap cafés, advertisements, simple bedrooms, and small-town main streets. For fifty years, from the late 1920s to the early 1970s, Evans recorded the American scene with the nuance of a poet and the precision of a surgeon, creating an encyclopedic visual catalogue of modern America in the making.

 

In 1935, Evans accepted a job from the U.S. Department of the Interior to photograph a government-built resettlement community of unemployed coal miners in West Virginia. He quickly parlayed this temporary employment into a full-time position as an "information specialist" in the Resettlement (later Farm Security) Administration, a New Deal agency in the Department of Agriculture. Under the direction of Roy Stryker, the RA/FSA photographers (Dorothea Lange, Arthur Rothstein, and Russell Lee, among others) were assigned to document small-town life and to demonstrate how the federal government was attempting to improve the lot of rural communities during the Depression. Evans, however, worked with little concern for the ideological agenda or the suggested itineraries and instead answered a personal need to distill the essence of American life from the simple and the ordinary.

 

In the summer of 1936, Evans took a leave of absence from the Resettlement Administration to travel to the South with his friend, the writer James Agee, who had been assigned to write an article on tenant farmers by Fortune magazine; Evans was to be the photographer. Although the magazine ultimately rejected Agee's long text about three families in Alabama, what in time emerged from the collaboration was Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), a lyric journey to the limits of direct observation.

 

In September 1938, the Museum of Modern Art opened “American Photographs”, a retrospective of Evans' first decade of photography. The museum simultaneously published American Photographs—still for many artists the benchmark against which all photographic monographs are judged. Between 1938 and 1941, Evans produced a remarkable series of portraits in the New York City subway.

 

Between 1934 and 1965, Evans contributed more than 400 photographs to 45 articles published in Fortune magazine. In 1973, Evans began to work with the innovative Polaroid SX-70 camera and an unlimited supply of film from its manufacturer. With the new camera, Evans returned to several of his enduring themes—among the most important of which are signs, posters, and their ultimate reduction, the letter forms themselves.