Walker Evans

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Walker Evans (1937)

Walker Evans (born November 3, 1903 in Saint Louis , Missouri , † April 10, 1975 in New Haven , Connecticut ) was an American photographer .


Evans grew up in a wealthy family and attended, among other things, the private Loomis Chaffee School in Windsor . He developed a pronounced literary interest early on and took a trip to Paris in 1926 to prepare for a career as a writer. In Paris he enrolled at the Université Sorbonne . He studied the works of Gustave Flaubert and Charles Baudelaire , while he was also very familiar with the work of James Joyce . Evans stayed in Paris for a year and moved there in the literary and artistic circles.

Back in the United States, Evans gave up his career aspirations as a writer and from 1928 onwards he devoted himself to photography. Familiar with the work of the Bauhaus and the Russian avant-garde , he pursued a graphically abstract, constructivist style. He found his motifs primarily in New York . His series of the Brooklyn Bridge was in the poetry collection in 1929 The Bridge of Hart Crane published. Evans had already changed his style by this point. He photographed life on the streets of New York on 35mm films. Due to his precarious financial situation, Evans worked at night and took pictures during the day. His wife financed the rent of the shared apartment.

In the same year, Walker Evans met Lincoln Kirstein , who was also literary and publisher of Hound & Horn magazine. It was through him that he met Berenice Abbott , where he first saw the originals of Eugène Atget . Kirstein initiated Evans' first exhibition participation (with Margaret Bourke-White and Ralph Steiner ) in the Museum of Modern Art , New York , in 1929 . Evans' engagement with the work of Walter Benjamin culminated in an article he wrote in Hound & Horn . Here it becomes clear that he also knew the German New Objectivity and was familiar with the work of the German photographers Albert Renger-Patzsch and August Sander . Kirstein suggested to Evans to deal with the great American documentarists Mathew B. Brady and Lewis Hine , in order to finally propose a documentary project to him. Walker Evans photographed typical examples of this historical architectural style in 1931 for a book planned by Kirstein about the disappearing Victorian architecture in New England . After working in small format, he used a borrowed large format camera for the first time. In the context of this work Evans developed his "documentary style". He reproduced the buildings largely from the front, without stylistic sharpening (frontal access to reality), and selected lighting conditions that seemed suitable to him, with which contours can be emphasized. It was important to him to differentiate himself from the pure documentation (he names the crime scene photography of the police as an example) and saw himself as an artist.

Commissions from journals / magazines took him to Tahiti in 1932 and to Cuba in 1933. During these years (1931/32) he also worked in Upper Greenwich Village with other artists in the studio. In 1934, Fortune magazine wrote a report on the US Communist Party. In 1935 he photographed African masks for the Museum of Modern Art (MoMa). Evans traveled to the south of the United States for several assignments, which increasingly interested him. He expanded his spectrum to include indoor shots and street photography, with which he recorded billboards and their own contemporary typography . In addition to a large format camera (8 × 10 inch), Evans also used a Leica.

After Evans had carried out several assignments for the Resettlement Administration (RA), he was hired by this in October 1935. This institution was under President Roosevelt of policy New Deal , established to improve the situation of the rural population, especially farmers and tenants. Evans worked for the Historical Section, which was dedicated to photographic and sociological documentation - in 1937 this organization came under the umbrella of the Farm Security Administration (FSA). At his insistence, Walker Evans' contract was designed in such a way that he could largely follow his interests. He had stipulated that he would not be used directly for the political (propaganda) mission of the RA / FSA; Evans: "This is a mere recording, and above all not propaganda ..." (after Walker Evans at Work). He worked for the FSA until 1938, mainly in the southern states.

In 1936, Walker Evans and the writer James Agee of Fortune magazine were commissioned to do a report in the southern states. You should report on the situation of the land tenants. Evans took a leave of absence from the FSA for this assignment. This came about on the condition that the rights to his photographs were assigned to the FSA. Evans traveled to Alabama with Agee. In Hale County, they signed a contract with three families to work with them for the proposed report. While Agee moved to one of the families (under extremely poor conditions) for the period of the report, Evans rented a hotel. The recordings created there by Agees and Evans ultimately did not meet the expectations of the client, as the material went beyond the scope of a report. Agee then decided to publish a book, in 1941 it appeared: Let us now praise famous men (German editions: I want to praise the great men). The book begins abruptly with a selection of 31 Walker Evans' photographs. This is followed by Agee's text. Only 4000 copies of the first edition were sold, the book did not find a great response. The new edition from 1960 includes a total of 62 photographs. Apparently due to the greater time lag to the Great Depression and the World War, the book was a great success.

At the suggestion of Lincoln Kirstein, MoMA organized the first exhibition by a single photographer for Walker Evans in 1938: American Photographs. The suspension followed a concept by Walker Evans. The catalog, which is published at the same time, follows a different logic from that of the exhibition, contrary to what is generally customary.

In the following years, Walker Evans lived from changing jobs. In 1941 he developed the "Subway Series". With a hidden camera he photographed subway passengers in New York who felt unobserved. This series was only published in 1966 under the title "Many are called". Also in 1941 he was commissioned to photographically illustrate a book about Florida. For this purpose, he photographed holidaymakers in particular in the “Sun State”. On behalf of Fortune, he traveled to Bridgeport in Connecticut, New England, to document the city, which was flourishing thanks to the war industry. In the same year Evans found a job as a movie critic at Time magazine , but hardly took any photos during the war until he was hired by Fortune magazine in 1945.

In 1946 Evans worked on "anonymous portraits". He photographed passers-by in Detroit and Chicago from inconspicuous locations, mostly from a slightly frog's perspective. Evans said he was interested in people "as elements of the picture (...) ... [he] doesn't believe in the truth of the portrait." In the Chicago series, published in Fortune, he primarily depicted women shopping.

In 1945 Evans published a series of photographs from the moving train in Fortune. Evans saw this series as a continuation of the subway recordings and emphasizes the almost automatic creation of these photographs by random prints.

In 1955, The Beauty of the Tool was created , a larger group of photographs that Fortune publishes. Here Evans depicted tools in a neutral environment. Until he left Fortune in 1965, other contributions from him appeared there regularly. That year Evans became a professor of photography in the Department of Graphic Design at Yale University School of Art. This school is Yale University's Art Academy .

In 1962 the Museum of Modern Art, New York, (MoMA) exhibited a selection of the pictures it had shown in 1938 again under the title Walker Evans: American Photographs . In 1971 John Szarkowski curated Evans' first major retrospective for MoMA.

In 1972, Walker Evans discovered the specific possibilities of the color Polaroid instant image technology with its own aesthetic after the Polaroid SX-70 camera came onto the market. Up until then, Evans had largely rejected color photography, but between 1945 and 1965 he worked out nine color portfolios with black and white and color photographs and another nine purely color portfolios: “A year ago I would have said that color photos were vulgar. Such a contradiction is typical of me. Now I will devote myself to my work with the color with great care. "

The Estate of Walker Evans ceded Walker Evans' estate, including all copyrights, to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1994 . In 2000, Walker Evans was included in the St. Louis Walk of Fame for his role as an important American photographer .

Work and reception

Walker Evans' importance as a photographer is largely based on the photographs he took during the Great Depression in the mid-1930s. The portraits of the three tenant families Fields, Borroughs and Tingle became icons of photography history. In the United States, they are taken as documents on the identity of white Americans who stand upright even under the most difficult circumstances, do not lose their morals and stand up for the good. As a typical East Coast intellectual, Evans had a close relationship with literature, art history and was a connoisseur of contemporary art development, so that, against such a background, he was able to reflect and critically evaluate his own photography and that of his contemporaries. Accordingly, he quickly acquired the perspectives of European artists and photographers and understood them as an impetus for his own development. He decidedly turned away from the photography understanding of the leading American photographers Edward Steichen and Alfred Stieglitz and described their photographic attitude as "artiness". He was referring to a conception that wanted to establish photography as art by imitating the methods of painting ( pictorialism ). Walker Evans developed an independent photographic language from his work on documenting Victorian architecture. With the frontal and seemingly neutral approach, he is close to the procedures of art historians and monument preservationists, but at the same time also a forerunner of Bernd and Hilla Becher, who a.o. in the second half of the 1950s. a. Systematically documented industrial monuments.

With his work at the FSA and reporting in Hale County, Evans continued the great American tradition of social documentary photographers , but used a very personal view of the people portrayed. When presenting his recordings in exhibitions and books, it is striking how important it was to him to edit the pictures afterwards through trimming. On the last night of his solo exhibition at MoMA, he and a craftsman from the museum must have cropped most of the photographs again for the presentation. He did not present them in a frame, but instead stretched them out on cardboard. At the same time, Walker Evans can be understood as a forerunner of street photography . He undoubtedly influenced many successors. This is largely proven z. B. for Garry Winogrand , who himself points out this influence. The street photographer Helen Levitt, in turn, was Evans' cooperation partner and mentor in 1938/39. Furthermore, it is believed that Robert Frank's book The Americans was written under the influence of Walker Evans' work.

With his photographs of photographs (picture in picture), for example the photography of the advertising image of a New York passport photograph studio, he questioned the way his medium was created. This results in a certain precedence for appropriation art , namely the processing or processing of other people's works of art. With his Polaroids, however, Walker Evans was no longer able to match the level of his earlier work.


In 1969 Evans was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences .


  • 1977 150 years of photography documenta 6 , Kassel
  • 2010 Walker Evans. Decade by Decade , Cincinnati Art Museum , Cincinnati , Ohio
  • 2012 Walker Evans. Decade by Decade An exhibition by the Cincinnati Art Museum curated by James Crump, Chief Curator / Curator of Photography at the Cincinnati Art Museum, in cooperation with the Photographische Sammlung / SK Stiftung Kultur, Cologne; September 21, 2012 to January 20
  • 2013 Photographic Collection / SK Foundation Culture, Cologne
  • 2013 Upper Austrian State Museum , State Gallery, Linz, Upper Austria and Huis Marseille , Amsterdam
  • 2014 Walker Evans: A Lifetime Achievement. Martin-Gropius-Bau , Berlin
  • 2015/2016 Walker Evans. Depth of field. The retrospective . Josef Albers Museum. Square , Bottrop

Group exhibition



  • James Crump: Walker Evans. Decade by Decade. Exhibition catalog Cincinnati Art Museum. Hatje and Cantz Verlag, Ostfildern 2010, ISBN 978-3-7757-2491-3 .
  • Walker Evans at Work - 745 Photographs together with Documents / Selected from Letters, Memoranda, Interviews, Notes . Harper & Row, New York 1982. ISBN 0-06-011104-6 .
  • Walker Evans - America (Images from the Depression Years). Munich 1990, ISBN 3-88814-351-9 .
  • Walker Evans - The Insatiable Gaze. Munich 1993, ISBN 3-88814-689-5 .
  • Walker Evans & COMPANY . The Museum of Modern Art, New York 2000. ISBN 0-8109-6206-3 . - Catalog of the exhibition of the same name at MoMA from March 16 to July 26, 2000.
  • Michael Leicht: How Katie Tingle refused to pose properly and Walker Evans didn't resent it. A critical consideration of social documentary photography . transcript Verlag, Bielefeld 2006, ISBN 3-89942-436-0 .
  • John Hill, Heinz Liesbrock: Walker Evans: depth of field. Prestel, Munich 2015, ISBN 978-3-7913-8222-7 .

Web links

Commons : Walker Evans  - collection of pictures, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. ^ American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Book of Members (PDF) . Retrieved April 18, 2016.
  2. ^ Documenta 6 catalog: Volume 2, p. 66: Photography / Film / Video, 1977, ISBN 3-920453-00-X .
  3. Walker Evans. Decade by Decade, by photographer R , magazine for photography
  4. ^ Announcement on the exhibition , accessed on September 7, 2014.
  5. Lenbachhaus - I'm a Believer. Retrieved March 18, 2019 .
  6. A life as conceived by the Marquis de Sade. In: FAZ . October 5, 2013, p. L7.
  7. Just icons. In: FAZ . March 17, 2016, p. R6.