(St. Louis, Missouri, 1903 - 1975, New Haven, Connecticut)
Walker Evans was educated at private schools and attended Williams College for a year before leaving with the ambition of becoming a writer. Evans lived in Europe in 1926 and 1927 and briefly attended the Sorbonne before returning to live in New York City. Influenced by the work of Paul Strand, Eugene Atget and Lewis Hine, Evans began his photography career in 1928 by making abstract modernist images of urban environments. Out of this came Evans’s photographs of the Brooklyn Bridge, three of which illustrate Hart Crane’s epic poem The Bridge, published by the Black Sun Press in Paris in 1930.
Evans continued to travel with his camera on trips to Tahiti in 1932 and Havana in 1933. In 1935, Evans was commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art in New York City to document an exhibit of African sculpture. At about this same time, Evans began turning his camera on the American south in a series of visits beginning in 1934. Working for the Farm Security Administration (FSA), Evans and writer James Agee visited Hale County, Alabama in the summer of 1936. Agee and Evans produced Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, an account of the lives of three poor sharecropping families, which was published in 1941. In 1938, MoMA mounted a major exhibit of Evans’s work called “American Photographs,” which was also the name given to a book of his photographs published the same year. Both the exhibit and the book include a wide variety of subjects, from architecture and signboards to laborers and pedestrians.
While Evans’s Depression-era work embodies a shift from abstraction to documentation, Evans himself cautions against viewing his documentary work as straightforward: “Very often I’m doing one thing when I’m thought to be doing something else.” In 1938 and 1941, using a miniature camera hidden in his coat, Evans secretly took photographs of passengers in the New York City subway. These photographs were not shown until 1966, in an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art. Evans offered this justification for his furtive camera work: “Stare. It is the way to educate your eye, and more. Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long.”