In this instalment in our series focusing on masters of photography, we’re looking at the life and work of Walker Evans, one of the most influential photographers of the 20th century.
Evans was born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1903, and grew up around Chicago. Upon leaving college, his first desire was to become a writer, and when he moved to New York as a young man, it was to write. During the days, he worked in bookshops and at the New York Public Library, and during the evenings, he worked on essays and short stories, though without much success. He even spent a year in Paris, trying to make it as a writer. He was in his late 20s and back from Paris when he first picked up a camera seriously.
Evans was inspired by the French photographer Eugène Atget, who had photographed Paris at the turn of the 20th century. He chose as his subjects the mundane and the everyday, going “against the style of the time”, in his own words. He was concerned with American culture in all its forms, from shop windows to signposts. Evans claimed that it didn’t matter which camera he used, and he experimented with different makes and models.
In 1935-36, during the Great Depression, Evans was working full-time as a government photographer, recording life in small communities in rural America with what would become his characteristic skill, flair and innate sensitivity.
It was during this time that he found his stride and made his name; by the late 1930s, his photographs were appearing in books and magazines, and attracting considerable attention.
In 1938, the Museum of Modern Art in New York put on a show of Evans’s work and published an accompanying book, American Photographs. Significantly, it was the first time the institution had hosted an exhibition of a single photographer’s work.
The show included many of the pictures Evans had taken during his time working for the government, showcasing his engaging but fiercely unsentimental style and uncanny talent for portraying not just a personality, but also a whole story through a single photograph.The show marked a shift away from photographers trying to capture ‘the beautiful image’ and towards what we now recognise as a more realist, photo-journalistic style.
1941 saw the publication of Evans’s book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a collaboration with a writer friend of his, James Agee. It remains one of the seminal photographic works of the last century, pairing Evans’s searingly honest yet enigmatic portraits of life in rural Alabama with Agee’s grand, exuberant narrative. Here are dustbowls, rusty signs, weathered clapboard, rural churches and scruffy, underfed children. Even today it is impossible to see these photographs and not be moved.
For the following two decades, Evans contributed both photographs and words to many publications, including Fortune magazine, which published 45 of his articles and employed him as Special Photographic Editor from the 1940s until the mid-1960s. He continued to photograph buildings, taught photography and design, and undertook personal projects.
Evans died in 1975, leaving behind a body of work that is credited with capturing the true reality of life in the America of the Depression Era, and beyond. Photographers and artists including Henri Cartier-Bresson, Diane Arbus, Robert Frank and Garry Winogrand have all publicly acknowledged his influence, and his photographs are more admired today than ever before.