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Definition: Evans, Walker from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

US photographer. He is best known for his documentary photographs of people in the rural American South during the Great Depression. Many of his photographs appeared in James Agee's book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941).

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Evans, Walker


Summary Article: Evans, Walker (1903–75) from The Great Depression and the New Deal: A Thematic Encyclopedia

Born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1903 and raised in Chicago, Walker Evans dropped out of Williams College after one year, spent another studying in Paris, then moved to New York where he fruitlessly tried to find work as a writer and took up photography as a sideline. From this unlikely beginning emerged a profoundly influential figure in American photography, art, and journalism. Like Alfred Stieglitz and the pictorialists, Walker Evans strongly believed in photography as an art. However, he rejected the pictorialist painterly style, pursuing an aesthetic informed by the clean economy of modernism and a principle of straightforward truthfulness.

Best known for his work of the 1930s while under contract to the Resettlement Administration (RA), and later the Farm Security Administration, Evans’s photographs are often characterized by a sober, direct realism. Though Evans did occasionally use a 35 mm camera, most memorably in a series of photographs taken covertly on the New York subway (published in 1966 as Many Are Called), for his RA photographs Evans favored an 8" × 10" view camera. The large format allowed Evans to capture exceptional and nuances of light and texture lending visual intensity to studies of storefronts, windows, and interiors. Given the longer exposures typically required, where Evans included people his subjects often address the camera with frank directness as they pose for him.

Though Evans preferred his work to be considered in artistic terms, he gained notice working as a photojournalist, including assignments for Fortune which would be an important source of income through most of his life. In 1935 he began his association with the RA, documenting the administration’s relief efforts in rural towns. Though the regular income and freedom to occupy himself entirely with photography was welcome to Evans, he chafed under the direction of administrator Roy E. Stryker. In part this stemmed from conflicting principles. Steadfastly apolitical, Evans had qualms about contributing to what he considered propaganda. When the RA was embroiled in controversy after it became known Arthur Rothstein had moved a steer’s skull for compositional variety, Evans took the side of critics who lambasted the Rothstein for subverting the facts of a scene as it had been found. Above all, Evans regretted terms of his employment stipulating the federal government would retain the rights to work he created while a member of the unit (now held by the Library of Congress). The terms did not deter him from pursuing side projects, including a collaboration in the summer of 1936 with author James Agee on a magazine assignment to document the lives of Southern tenant farmers. While the article never materialized, in 1941 the project was published in book form as Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Work from Evans’s RA period also appeared in his portfolio American Photographs, published by the Museum of Modern Art in 1938.

Evans continued contributing work to Fortune until 1965, when he took a teaching position at Yale and resumed his quest for greater artistic independence. Though the work of his later years is often characterized as uneven, it was in his later years that Evans formed important relationships with the succeeding generation of photographers, notably Dianne Arbus, Lee Friedlander, and Robert Frank, whose 1959 work The Americans strongly evoked Evans’s American Photographs.

References and Further Reading
  • Curtis, James C., and Sheila Grannen. 1980 “Let us now appraise famous photographs: Walker Evans and documentary photography.” Winterthur Portfolio, 15 (1): 1-23.
  • Galassi, Peter. 2000 Walker Evans and Company. Museum of Modern Art, distributed by H New York. N. Abrams.
  • Mellow, James R. 1999 Walker Evans. Basic Books New York.
  • Stotts, William. 1973 Documentary Expression and Thirties America. Oxford University Press New York.
  • Mann, Tess
    Copyright 2010 by ABC-CLIO, LLC

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