Walker Evans Profile
Walker Evans was born on November 3 1903 in St Louis, Missouri. There is something fitting about his arriving there and then, just as the city prepared itself for its 1904 World’s Fair – the brief moment when St Louis came close to being the capital of the world.
Viewed from the early 21st century, Evans is pretty much the pivotal figure in the history of photography. Or, at least, of the photography that – whisper it – thinks of itself as art. He, more than anyone, put photography on the gallery wall. He had his first show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art within six years of taking up photography. He also moved photography’s intellectual and emotional heart from Europe to the US.
Since him – because of him – photography’s central landscape has been America – or perhaps Americana. An everyday, work a day world seen, in glimpses, through artful eyes. Highways and gas stations and advertising and main streets: it was Evans who put these in the photographer’s frame. “American city is what I’m after,” he wrote. “People, all classes. Automobiles and the automobile landscape. Architecture, American urban taste, commerce, small scale, large scale, the city street atmosphere, the street smell, the hateful stuff, women’s clubs, fake culture, bad education, religion in decay...”
It’s a temptation to see all photography since Evans – at least, all photography with ambitions to join him on those gallery walls – as a dialogue with his images. It’s a temptation to which I succumb, readily. Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, Stephen Shore, William Eggleston, the Bechers and Andreas Gursky. Diane Arbus, Martin Parr and Richard Billingham, even. All their pictures are, in good part, conversations with Evans.
“I’m not sure any of us has made photographs as good as Evans,” said Jeff Wall. He was raised in affluence: in Chicago first; then, when his parents separated, in New York. He went to prep school and an elite university – where he dropped out. There was a year in Paris and a few years hanging out in arty downtown Manhattan, with plans to become a writer. He took to photography in 1928 and quickly gained recognition – that show at MoMA, most obviously. The moment that made him came in 1935, when he was taken on by the government agency set up to document the effects of the Depression on rural America.
Along with other photographers – Dorothea Lange and Ben Shahn, most notably – he made images that have become familiar far beyond the world of art photography. In particular, as an extension of this work, he was commissioned by Fortune magazine to do a photo story on Hale County, Alabama, with writer James Agee. Shunned by the magazine but eventually appearing in a 1941 book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, these pictures are what made his name and gave him his commanding place in the story of photography.
They were images of the lives of dust-poor, white sharecropping farmers – faces, families, houses, interiors, still lives. Their simplicity and directness – shaped by Evans’s stunning capacity for composition – were revolutionary. They made the viewer feel that the camera had disappeared: that what they were seeing was, well, what they were seeing. They weren’t, of course. That was a sleight of hand. A revolutionary one, but still a sleight of hand. Errol Morris’s almost forensic study of Evans’s pictures has revealed just how much they were creations rather than recordings – artful, thoughtful, deliberate and deliberated on.
For Evans’s 1971 MoMA retrospective,John Szarkowski wrote: “It is difficult to know now with certainty whether Evans recorded the America of his youth, or invented it.” Evans’s essential subject (and, truth be told, all photography’s) is nostalgia. Remembrances not of the past but of a forgotten (or never known) present. Like all game-changing images, they transformed the way we look – at the world, at ourselves, at art.
Jeff Rosenheim, curator of photography at the Metropolitan: “He set himself up as a historical model to see the present as if it were already the past. And if he could do that at the time, he could stand for all time.” If those few dozen pictures were the peak of Evans’s life – and impact and import – he did have a subsequent existence.
He took secret portraits on the New York subway. He mentored Helen Levitt. He steered Robert Frank to the grant which funded his book, The Americans – and took a picture of Frank’s kitchen stove in 1971. He edited – at Fortune magazine, ironically. He took a lot more photographs – for magazine stories, mostly, often of businessmen. He wrote. He taught at Yale. He drank and got married several times – and drank some more. He died, at his home in small-town coastal Connecticut, in 1975.
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