Walker Evans (1903-1975) from a mediocre writer to a photography documentary superstar

Walter Evans, portrait, unknown photographer.

Walker Evans isan American photographer born in 1903 and who died in 1975. He
his well knownfor the photographs he took for the Farm Security
Administration (FSA). We haveall seen some of his pictures without
knowing so. His most famous work is the
series of photos he took of poor farmers from Alabama. However these
are just the tip of the iceberg that forms his work. He was fascinated
by the
notion of document and a radical photographer in his approach of

According to his
friend, the French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson “without the challenge
that represent Walker’s work, (he) would never have remained a photographer”.
Looking back Walker Evans seems to be a superstar of social photography;
however he was a reserve and shy person, with the temper of a perfectionist.

From the mediocre writer to the superstar.

Evans was born
in a rich American family from the Midwest. His parents had to move regularly
from one city to another because of his father’s work (Toledo, Chicago,
New-York City). In 1922, after graduating from Phillips Academy (Massachusetts)
he studied French literature (mostly Flaubert) in Williams College. He was a
true bookworm.

In 1923 he moves
to New York City where he lives three years and starts to write short stories.
In 1926, thanks to his father’s held and just like Ernest Hemingway, Henry
Miller and Scott Fitzerald, he goes to live in Paris. There, he tries to take
literature classes from famous Sorbonne University.

Due to his
financial situation he finally goes back to New York City in 1927. He starts
translating the work of Cocteau and Larbaud while working in a bookshop. It is
only then and thanks to some of his friends that he discovers photography. In
order to make a living he works as a clerk for a stockbroker in Wall Street
from 1927 to 1929. The rest of the time he lives the bohemian live of a failed
writer in Greenwich Village,

In 1928, unable
to describe in writings the reality of the life of the poor, he gives up on
literature and buys himself a camera to become a photographer.

In 1930, his
first pictures of skyscraper are noticed and he earns a small notoriety. His
discovery of the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Eugène Atget will comfort
him in his research. As a great admirer of Flaubert’s work a takes up to one of
his maxims “an artist has to be as God in his creation, he has to be felt in
every aspects, but never to be seen”. He then starts taking pictures without
indulgence, looking for objectivity and the direct style unable by photography.

In 1933, he receives a command to document the
Cuban Revolution. This documentary will later on lead to the publication of a
book: The Crime of Cuba.

2.       The photographic mission of the FSA

Walker Evans, Allie Mae Burroughs,

Between 1935 and 1943, Evans will be part of a
team of photographers (more than 30 in total, among which the amazing Dorothea
Lange). Together they will go throughout the United-States documenting on the
drama of the greatest economic crises known by his country and most
specifically the consequences for the mutating agricultural world. The
mutations were due to the will of Roosevelt’s administration and the FSA was
created to speed up the needed reforms. The aim was to convince the American
People to pursue the reforms towards the modernization of the agricultural
industry and this works of communication has to go through pictures. Thanks to
this photographic group, led by Roy Stryker from 1935 until 1942, FSA is still
known today. Its aim was to document the way of life of the formers in The
United States. Roy Striker, inspired by Lewis Hine’s work, employed a great
number of photographers, renowned and unowned, coming from different styles,
only based on the social and political commitment.

Walker Evans Sharecropper, Hale Conty,

Throughout 270 000 documents, this
photographer, each in their own way, created a human portrait of the economic
crises. Portraits as the ones taken by Dorothea Lange or those taken by Walker
Evans deeply marked the mind of the citizens of the United-States of the time.

In order to give a meaning to this great number of
photos, Walker Evans was chosen to be “Senior Information Specialist”. In 1935,Evans
started his work with a large format camera in order to shoot sharp and precise
picture of the crises.

He is very attached to vernacular architecture
and photographed the inside of modest family houses and commercial signs in
order to show the gap created between the poorest families and the consumerist
society. This reflects the evolution of the work of the FSA which started to
document poverty in general and not only the difficulties met by the
agricultural society.

Walker Evans in1936, most likely a picture taken by
James Agee

In 1936, while Evans was still working for the
FSA, he started to travel with James Agee in order to illustrate a work of
command from the magazine Fortune, on
Alabaman farmer families. This collaborative work led to the publication of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men in 1941. Frotune never published this work.

Walker Evans, Bud Fiels and his family,
Alabama 1935

Museum of Modern
Art, (MOMA), organized on exhibit dedicated to the work he did from 1929 to
1936 «Walker Evans: American Photographs».
Then it is the first time that the MOMA dedicated a full exhibit to a single
photographer.  The book untitled “American Photographs” that followed this
exhibit will influence generation of photographers.

A picture writer

1938, Evans will stop his work with the FSA and goes back to a urban environment.
He starts a series of portraits in the New York Subway that will last until
1941. Through his work he describes the “overwhelming absence of joy” of the

His camera
hidden, the noise of the shutter masked by the subway, Evans has the perfect
condition to make sure his subjects do not notice him.

Are we really in front of portraits when looking
at Evans’ work? His aim is to give out just and instinctive pictures of his
subjets, without apparent empathy and subjectivity. He demands to himself a
work of realism, refusing sentimentalism while creating emotionally charger
pictures. He tries to understand the men and the women living in this society
in constant mutation. The difference between the instantaneity of the picture
taken at a given point and the immortality of the picture itself fascinate
Evans. It is the transformation of the present into past that haunts him: “what
interested Evans was to know would the present look like once it would became
the future” (Jeremy Thomson).

In 1943 he worked for the Time, and then spent 22 years working for Fortune. He runs away from the celebrity he could have photographed
while working for this magazine and runs away from the crowds in order to take
pictures of individuals.

He gave up on journalism in 1965 in order to
teach photography and graphic conception at Yale University where he worked
until 1974.

In 1971 a great retrospective of his work was
organized by the MoMA. He starting shooting in color in 1973 with a SX-70
Polaroid Camera and experimented with this new form of this medium until his
death. His later work is less knows since people only want to see in Evans the
great documentary photographer and the man a photograph social misery. He even
said himself that “color photography ‘was’ vulgar”, which didn’t prevent him to
shoot thousands of color film (mostly of women, friends and students) working
on “counter-esthetic”.

He died at home in New Haven Connecticut on the
10th of April 1975 and his burial was led by no ceremony.

This great admirer of James Joyce looked throughout
his life for the meaning of things with a sense of ethic. He took a great
number of photos on many different subjects. His technic varied throughout the
years between architectural composition and instinctive ones stolen in the

His photos are recognizable by their shaving
light. Evans loved this kind of lights that reveal a maximum of details on
faces and walls.

Walker Evans,
interior of a minor’s house in Virginia, 1935.

early love for literature will never leave him and it influenced his way of
shooting photos. When he works as a master of propaganda for the FSA, he seems
to be looking for realism more than a real militant approach. Pictures hold for
him a place between eternity of art and the short-lived instance of a
commercial or journalistic work.


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