Walker Evans, (born November 3, 1903, St. Louis, Missouri, U.S.
died April 10, 1975, New Haven, Connecticut),
American photographer whose influence on the evolution of ambitious photography during the second half of the 20th century was perhaps greater than that of any other figure.
He rejected the prevailing highly aestheticized view of artistic photography, of which Alfred Stieglitz was the most visible proponent, and constructed instead an artistic strategy based on the poetic resonance of common but exemplary facts, clearly described. His most characteristic pictures show quotidian American life during the second quarter of the century, especially through the description of its vernacular architecture, its outdoor advertising, the beginnings of its automobile culture, and its domestic interiors.
In 1928 and 1929 Evans made a substantial number of photographs that unmistakably indicate artistic ambition. Most of these depict semiabstract patterns derived from skyscrapers or other machine-age products. However, in the fall of 1929 he became interested in the work of the French photographer Eugène Atget, who eschewed deliberately artistic effects in his simple, economic photographs of Paris and its environs at the turn of the 20th century.
Near the end of his life, Evans would say that seeing Atget confirmed a new direction that was in fact already taking place in his work, and there is no reason to challenge this formulation. Nevertheless, it would seem that during the early 1930s Evans virtually worked his way through the Atget catalog, applying its lessons to the very different raw material offered by his own country. Evans’s unswerving commitment to a direct and unsentimental style, free of dramatic vantage points and romantic glints and shadows, was a commitment to an art that concealed its art. On the level of style, his work might have been mistaken for that of a skilled if literal-minded commercial photographer. Evans’s idea of artistic style was expressed by Gustave Flaubert’s maxim that an artist should be “like God in Creation…he should be everywhere felt, but nowhere seen.”
During the early 1930s Evans had worked only occasionally (and skeptically) as a professional photographer, preferring to live precariously from occasional assignments, often from friends. The idea that he should be asked to make a photograph conceived by someone else was offensive to his ego; in addition, there were many sorts of photographs that he had never learned to make. However, from mid-1935 to early 1937 Evans worked for a regular salary as a member of the so-called “historical unit” of the Farm Security Administration (FSA; earlier, the Resettlement Administration), an agency of the Department of Agriculture. Its assignment was to provide a photographic survey of rural America, primarily in the South. To the degree that the function of the unit was ever defined, its goal was less history than a form of political persuasion. In any case it afforded Evans the means of traveling, generally alone and without immediate financial concerns, in search of the material for his art.
In a working life of almost half a century, one might guess that half of Evans’s best work was done during that year and a half, when he constructed with photographs an analogue of rural life in America. What made Evans’s work new was the kind of facts that he selected for scrutiny, and the subtlety of his appreciation of those facts and their resonant allusions. Most of Evans’s best work dealt not with people but with the things they made: he was concerned most of all with the character of American culture as it was expressed in its vernacular architecture and in its unofficial decorative arts, such as billboards and shop windows. His subjects were on the surface resolutely prosaic and artless, yet it can be argued that what he demanded of them was quality—he demanded that they be exemplary of the brave, groping, sometimes comic effort to create a built culture that would be consonant with an unprecedented nation.