Biography | Bibliography
Evans (November 3, 1903 – April 10, 1975) was an American photographer best known for his work for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) documenting the effects of the Great Depression. Much of Evans’s work from the FSA period uses the large-format, 8×10-inch camera. He said that his goal as a photographer was to make pictures that are “literate, authoritative, transcendent”. Many of his works are in the permanent collections of museums and have been the subject of retrospectives at such institutions as The Metropolitan Museum of Art or George Eastman House.
Evans dropped out of college in 1926 and went to Paris, where he developed an interest in literature. He returned to the United States in 1927 and found himself alienated from American society and its mores. In turning to photography, he was influenced by Flaubert’s attitude that the artist should be invisible but all-powerful, and he reacted against the pictorialism then in vogue.
He moved toward a clear, straightforward, “truthful” style. In John Szarkowski’s words: “He thought of photography as a way of preserving segments out of time itself, without regard for the conventional structures of picture-building. Nothing was to be imposed on experience; the truth was to be discovered, not constructed”.
In 1935, Evans spent two months at first on a fixed-term photographic campaign for the Resettlement Administration (RA) in West Virginia and Pennsylvania. From October on, he continued to do photographic work for the RA and later the Farm Security Administration (FSA), primarily in the Southern United States.
After 1938 and through the fifties he photographed increasingly in the subways, in the streets, and from moving trains. During this period he also wrote for Time magazine (1943-1945) and wrote and photographed for Fortune (1945-1965). When, in later years, he returned to the more formal style of his youth, the images were more personal and autobiographical.
Evans, like such other photographers as Henri Cartier-Bresson, rarely spent time in the darkroom making prints from his own negatives. He only very loosely supervised the making of prints of most of his photographs, sometimes only attaching handwritten notes to negatives with instructions on some aspect of the printing procedure.
John R. Gossage, describing Evans as “an artist who hides his hand,” wrote: “Evans’s work, even on a casual reading, consists of facts immediately present to the attention. There are no overt references to symbolism or metaphor, no reaching for drama or art, yet all these are achieved. These remarkable photographs coerce, persuade, not to a point of view, but to a deeply felt conviction that these pictured things really did exist – they really looked like that – on that day…. But don’t let these photographs fool you.
There is nothing simple about being this direct, nothing casual about the plainness of these scenes and, most importantly, there is nothing detached for sentimental in this quiet passion. When you start to examine the trick these photographs have played on you – inducing you to believe that the photograph presents the scene ‘ the way it really was’ – a certain complex balance begins to assert itself: intelligence, and, more importantly, passion have allowed the images just the proper amount of space to complete the illusion, while at the same time being sufficiently expressive to sustain their maker. This result can only be achieved by a photographer with the kind of unalterable assurance in command of his art which enables him to permit something merely to be while simultaneously retaining involvement and kinship with it” (14 American Photographers catalogue, p. 11, listed in chapter 7).”1
In one of his last photographic projects, Evans completed a black and white portfolio of Brown Brothers Harriman & Co.’s offices and partners for publication in “Partners in Banking,” published in 1968 to celebrate the private bank’s 150th anniversary. In 1973 and 1974, he also shot a long series with the then-new Polaroid SX-70 camera, after age and poor health had made it difficult for him to work with elaborate equipment.
The first definitive retrospective of his photographs, whose works “individually evoke an incontrovertible sense of specific places, and collectively a sense of America,” according to a press release, were on view at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in early 1971. Selected by John Szarkowski and simply titled Walker Evans.
In 1994, The Estate of Evans handed over its holdings to New York City’s The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Metropolitan Museum of Art is the sole copyright holder for all works of art in all media by Walker Evans. The only exception is a group of approximately 1,000 negatives in collection of the Library of Congress which were produced for the Resettlement Administration (RA) / Farm Security Administration (FSA). Evans’s RA / FSA works are in the public domain.
1 From Lee D. Witkin, and Barbara London, Selected Photographers: A Collector’s Compendium, The Photograph Collector’s Guide, Boston: New York Graphic Society, 1979, 135.
Andrei Codrescu, Walker Evans: Signs, Christopher Hudson, 1998.
Peter Galassi, Walker Evans and Company, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2000.
Michael Brix, Birgit Mayer, Walker Evans, America, Rizzoli, 1990.
Jeff L. Rosenheim, Douglas Eklund, Unclassified: A Walker Evans Anthology, Scalo Zurich in association with The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1998.
Rodger Kingston, Walker Evans in Print: An Illustrated Bibliography, R.P. Kingston Photographs, 1995.
Lesley K. Baier, Walker Evans at Fortune, 1945-1965, Wellesley College Museum, 1977.
Gilles Mora, John T. Hill, Walker Evans The Hungry Eye, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1993.
Judith Keller, Walker Evans: The Getty Museum Collection, The J. Paul Getty Museum, 1995.
Lincoln Kirstein, Walker Evans: American Photographs, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1938.
Ellen Fleurov, Walker Evans: Simple Secrets, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1997.
Jerry L. Thompson, Walker Evans at Work, Harper & Row, 1982.
Jerald C. Maddox, Walker Evans: Photographs for the Farm Security Administration, 1935-1938, Da Capo Press, Inc., 1973.
Sarah Greenough, Walker Evans: Subways and Streets, National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1991.
Robert Plunket, Walker Evans: Florida, J. Paul Getty Museum, 2000.
Belinda Rathbone, Walker Evans: A Biography, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1995.
Gilles Mora, John T. Hill, Walker Evans: Havana 1933, Pantheon Books, 1989.
John T. Hill, Alan Trachtenberg, Walker Evans: Lyric Documentary, Steidl Publishers, Gottingen, Germany, 2006.