Walker Evans was a photographer known for his candid images of everyday American life. Alongside Dorothea Lange, he was one of a group of photographers employed by the Farm Security Administration in 1935 to capture the impact of the Great Depression. Celebrated for his crystal-clear realism, he is widely recognised as the progenitor of American documentary photography.
Born to an affluent family in St Louis in 1903, Evans originally wanted to be a writer. He began taking photographs while living with a bohemian literary crowd in New York in the late 1920s. His early works included images of the Brooklyn Bridge and his depictions of life in Cuba under the dictatorship of Gerardo Machado.
It was Evans’ photographs of rural American poverty, however, that first revealed his extraordinary capabilities. During his work for the FSA, he and his fellow photographers travelled through the farming regions of the Dust Bowl and the South. Evans’ haunting images of migrants and displaced tenant farmers captured the weight of the country’s history with the nuance of a poet. Some of his most famous photos include his arresting portraits of Allie Mae Burroughs, the wife of a cotton sharecropper in Alabama. These works earned Evans an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York in 1938. It was the first solo photography show ever held at the museum.
Over the course of his practice, Evans catalogued modern America in the making. He explored portraiture, self-portraiture, landscape and architectural photography. His New York subway photographs, taken between 1938 and 1941, offered candid records of people off-guard. ‘Even more than in lone bedrooms (where there are mirrors), people’s faces are in naked repose down in the subway,’ he said. Elsewhere he captured billboards, churches, civic buildings, barbershops and the beginnings of automobile culture.
Between 1943 and 1965 Evans worked as a writer and photographer for Time Inc. Until his death in 1975 he continued to push the boundaries of the medium. In the last years of his life, he began using a Polaroid sx-70 camera, producing instant prints that encapsulated his spare, direct poetry. His work had a profound influence on artists including Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand.
Window Display of Household Supply Store, East 4th Street, South Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, November 10, 1935