Icons of Photography: Walker Evans

Walker Evans was born on November 3, 1903, in St Louis, Missouri. There is something fitting about his arriving there and then: in a place sat at the heart of the US, on the Mississippi, at the borderline between north and south, east and west; and at the very moment the city was preparing itself for its 1904 World’s Fair, the brief moment when St Louis came close to being the capital of the world. Even the Olympic Games were held there that summer.

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. Before him, there was photography’s pre-history – a craft, mostly, and a European one at that, by and large.

With him came photography’s modern world — an art, with the US at its centre. He moved the game’s intellectual and emotional core across the Atlantic. Since him – because of him – photography’s central landscape has been America – or perhaps Americana. An everyday, workaday 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.

The great photography writer John Szarkowski wrote of Evans: ‘Nothing was to be imposed on experience; the truth was to be discovered, not constructed.’ Projected on to the pictures, too, I’d say. By us and by the photographer, too. When we look at Evans’ image of Saratoga Springs Main St, with its lines of identical parked cars in the rain, we are taken by its intense poetic formalism. Yet we also get an almost overwhelming feeling of mild depression. Ours? The photographer’s? A truthful reflection of life? Evans: ‘The eye traffics in feelings, not in thoughts.’

In 1938, he had the first solo photographer show at MoMA. It was called Walker Evans: American Photographs. Its catalogue made this claim: ‘the use of the visual arts to show us our own moral and economic situation has almost completely fallen into the hands of the photographer . . . and [Walker Evans’] pictures with all their clear, hideous and beautiful detail, their open insanity and pitiful grandeur, [is a] vision of a continent as it is, not as it might be or as it was.’

He uncovered and taught us about what is worth and worthy of photographing, about the interior landscape he mapped on to our world. (A black and white landscape, that is. He spurned and scorned colour — at least till his graveyard gate years.) You could almost say that it’s Walker Evans’ world and we only get to look at it. ‘We see what we have not heretofore realized, ourselves made worthy in our anonymity,’ said the poet William Carlos Williams of Evans’ pictures.

‘American city is what I’m after,’ Evans himself 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, from which he dropped out. There were plans to become a writer: he supported himself by working as a night attendant at the New York Public Library. There was a year in Paris – he sat in on lectures at the Sorbonne. And there were a few years hanging out in arty downtown Manhattan: by day, he worked in a brokerage house.

He took to photography in 1928 and quickly gained recognition – that show at MoMA, most obviously. For a few years, though, he struggled on the boundaries, trying to establish a place for himself between the competing poles of American photography’s then ruling kings, Alfred Stielgitz and Edward Steichen. Seeing Stielgitz as overconsciously arty and Steichen as seduced by commerce, Evans rejected – or perhaps combined – both.

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. They concentrated on one family – the Beals in their account, the Burroughs in life. Fortune rejected the piece but both words and pictures eventually appeared as a 1941 book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. These images are what made his name and gave Evans 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 lifes. 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, though, 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.’ Though long seen as founding works of documentary photography or artistic realism, they are also an alchemical quest to distil the abstract from the concrete. And the beginnings of photography’s dangerous journey into formalism. Evans wrote this: ‘The matter of art in photography may come down to this: it is the capture and projection of the delights of seeing; it is the defining of observation full and felt.’ Dangerous words, made safer only by Evans’ own pictures.

If those few dozen photographs made in Depression Alabama were the peak of his 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. For LIFE, he photographed New York’s Penn Station just before it was torn down. 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, on April 10, 1975.

© Peter Silverton 2019

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