10 things to know about Walker Evans
Ahead of our online sale, Walker Evans: An American Master, we trace the life of the photographer who displayed ‘the nuance of a poet and the precision of a surgeon’ — and became the forefather of the American documentary tradition
Walker Evans (1903-1975) was born to an affluent family in St. Louis, Missouri. His father’s job as an advertising director meant that the family was often on the move; Toledo, Chicago and New York City were all homes for the young Evans. In 1926 he spent a year studying French literature at Williams College in Massachusetts before quitting to work in the bookstores of New York City and Paris. There he wrote short stories and befriended writers including John Cheever and Hart Crane.
The invention of the pocket Kodak camera enabled Evans to photograph the people he met on his travels; eventually, this led him to abandon his dreams of becoming a writer and turn to documentary photography. But his love of literature is visible in his early images, which retain a strong sense of narrative structure.
Evans quickly developed his own style, eschewing formal European Modernism in favour of a more modest approach. Finding poetic resonance in ordinary subjects, his photographs of Brooklyn Bridge were used to illustrate The Bridge, Hart Crane’s 1930 book of poems. His images of Victorian houses in Boston were published alongside text by Lincoln Kirstein.
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In 1933, Evans was sent to Cuba to document the dictatorship of Gerardo Machado for Carleton Beals’ book The Crime of Cuba (1933). While there, Evans photographed the people affected by the oppressive regime. It was in Cuba that Evans developed his signature humanist aesthetic.
Also in Cuba, Evans befriended the American writer Ernest Hemingway. As Evans later recalled, ‘I had a wonderful time with Hemingway, drinking every night. He was at loose ends… and he needed a drinking companion, and I filled the role for two weeks.’ Hemingway lent Evans money to extend his trip in return for help sourcing archival newspaper imagery for what would become the novel To Have and Have Not (1937). Evans left 46 photographs with Hemingway in Cuba, fearing the authorities would confiscate them. They were rediscovered in Havana in 2002 and exhibited at the Key West Museum of Art & History in Florida.
In 1935 Evans took an assignment with the US Federal Agency’s Resettlement Administration, which relocated families affected by the economic depression.
As the worst years of the Depression hit — causing 25 per cent unemployment, the closure of some 5,000 banks and the migration of hundreds of thousands of Americans to shantytowns — Evans spent months travelling the states in search of poignant imagery and unique perspectives.
After two more years with the US government, Evans was asked to exhibit his images at MoMA in New York, in what would be their first-ever show dedicated to a single photographer.
Evans’ work had been included in four group exhibitions at MoMA since 1933, but it was the 1938 show Walker Evans: American Photographs that catapulted him to fame. His crystal-clear images of roadside attractions, storefronts and factory towns, and the faces of cotton farmers, coal miners and war veterans, defined a new up-close and personal style of documentary photography. The MoMA published show catalogue remains for many artists the benchmark photography monograph.
‘The exhibition and book presented images from Evans’ various projects out of their original contexts, and without textual explanations — a radical concept for the time,’ explains Darius Himes, Christie’s International Head of Photographs.
Evans witnessed the beginnings of automobile culture, the advertising boom and the rise of the financial industries. Having seen America at its worst, he became perfectly placed to also follow its rise to world superpower.
Evans’ iconic images of everyday citizens are today an encyclopaedia of modern America in the making.
Keen to work without drawing attention to himself, Evans began strapping his 35mm Contax camera to his chest, its lens peeking out between his coat buttons. As he would later explain, this enabled him to capture people when ‘the guard is down and the mask is off’. His subway portraits, taken between 1938 and 1941 using this method, remained unseen for 25 years until their publication in the 1966 book Many Are Called.
Evans rarely spent time in the darkroom. Instead, he attached handwritten notes to his negatives, with detailed instructions on how they were to be printed.
In 1945 Evans became a staff writer at Time magazine, then the Special Photographic Editor of Fortune magazine, which published his images alongside text which he wrote himself.
Evans remained in the role until 1965, when he took a job as Professor of Photography at Yale University School of Art.
He also continued to take on photographic assignments. As declining health made it difficult for him to work with large equipment, he switched to the newly invented portable Polaroid SX-70 camera. Polaroid offered Evans an unlimited supply of film.
Evans died at his home in Connecticut in 1975, aged 71. In 1994 his estate was bequeathed to MoMA, which became the sole copyright holder of his life’s work (his early photographs for the US government are held in the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.).
To date, MoMA has shown Evans’ work in 67 exhibitions, including the important solo shows Walker Evans American Photographs in 2013/14; Walker Evans: American Photographs in 1989; Walker Evans, 1903-1973 in 1975 and Walker Evans in 1971, for which the print below was made.
The five decades Evans spent documenting American life greatly influenced the candid work of photographers Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, Garry Winogrand and Martin Parr.
Evans, who has been described by the Metropolitan Museum as having ‘the nuance of a poet and the precision of a surgeon’, is regarded today as the progenitor of the American documentary genre.