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Walker Evans

An American photographer and author forever associated with the Great Depression, Walker Evans was, interestingly, born in the dry plate capital of St. Louis, Missouri to copywriter Walker Evans II and his wife Jessie on November 3, 1903. Shortly thereafter, the family moved to a posh enclave on the outskirts of Chicago before permanently settling in Toledo, Ohio. When his parents separated in 1918, young Walker accompanied his mother to New York City and attended a series of prestigious boarding schools, which included Pennsylvania's Mercersburg Academy, and the Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. While at Andover, he decided to pursue writing as his career and enrolled at Williams College. He withdrew at the end of his freshman year in 1926.

Mr. Evans spent the next few years traveling through Europe, and upon his return to America in 1927, his desire to write was replaced by his newfound passion for photography. He educated himself by poring through the texts of photography at the New York Public Library and absorbed every issue of Camera Work he could find. Although primarily self-taught, he was taught the technical fundamentals of photography by his friend, amateur photographer Dr. Iago Galdston. The powerful street images of French photographer Eugene Atget profoundly influenced Mr. Evans' approach to his art.

By the 1930s, Mr. Evans' photographs had been widely circulated, due in large part to his friendship with Lincoln Kirstein, who introduced him to the director of the Museum of Modern Art, Albert Barr. However, despite his popularity among members of the artistic community, Mr. Evans' photographs generated little income because he resisted commercial assignments. After travels throughout the South Pacific and Cuba, Mr. Evans began focusing his lens on the American South, creating a series of photographs that garnered national attention and that earned him the reputation as 'America's photographer.' He developed a documentary camera style that allowed him to create compressed, realistic-looking images with an 8 x 10 large format camera fitted with a triple converter lens.

In 1935, Mr. Evans began producing photographs for the newly created Resettlement Administration (later the Farm Security Administration), which was part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's "New Deal" solution to the problems of the Great Depression. Mr. Evans' gritty photographs of rural America struck a collective emotional chord because of their realistic representation of the Depression era struggles. However, Mr. Evans' creative liberties soon clashed with the administrative duties imposed upon him, and he was granted a leave of absence in 1936. During this time, he joined writer James Agee to chronicle the struggles of tenant farm families in Alabama that was to be featured in the Fortune magazine series entitled "Life and Circumstances." Although Fortune rejected the article, the text and photographs were later published in a volume entitled Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.

Mr. Evans worked as a contributor to Fortune magazine for twenty years beginning in 1945. He departed from his trademark black-and-white photography and began experimenting with color, again producing visually striking results. After his retirement from the magazine in 1965, he joined the teaching staff at Yale University's graphic design department until 1971, when he left to experiment with the Polaroid SX-70 instant camera. Mr. Evans' career proved more satisfying than his personal life. He was married and divorced twice and had no children. Walker Evans died in New Haven, Connecticut on April 10, 1975. He summed up his artistic approach with the observation, "I was photographing against the style of the time, against salon photography, against beauty photography, against art photography. I was against the grain."


Ref.:
2010 American National Biography, pp. 1-2.

2009 Photographing America, 1929-1947. (London: Thomas & Hudson), p. 11.

2003 Times of Sorrow and Hope (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press), p. 242.



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