“I was very innocent about the government, about Washington. But I found that I could get a job there. I did it so carelessly; I just photographed everything that attracted me at the time and, rather, unconsciously was recording that period. I didn’t think of it as such. The work piled up, and the sum of it is looked at now as a record that I wasn’t even thinking of making.” – Walker Evans
Original, dynamic, and with an ever-present inquisitive eye, Walker Evans was a quintessential American photographer who for fifty years, from the 1920s to the 1970s, created a body of work that elucidated and archived American society so thoroughly, it turned his images into an enduring body of work that influenced the development of art in the twentieth century. Evans focused his lens on capturing the creation of mid 20th century America, encapsulating the vernacular by photographing everything from small-town barber shops, rural markets, roadside signs, and architecture to taking portraits of everyday Americans. This documentation of America as a subject and his trademark straightforward style made him one of the preeminent practitioners of the documentary tradition for the United States. His efforts to record the essence of American life ultimately shaped public ideas of what it was to be American.
Walker Evans was born in 1903 in St. Louis, Missouri. Growing up in a well-off, puritanical family, his father was an advertising director, Evans spent his childhood in Chicago and New York City. He graduated from the prestigious Phillips Academy preparatory school and later attended Williams College for a year, to then drop out of school and pursue literature in New York City. He traveled to Paris and stayed there for a year and returned to New York intending to become a writer. It is around this time that Walker Evans began taking photographs with a small, hand-held camera, using the conventions of literature to guide his burgeoning aesthetic. Like Berenice Abbott, who went on to become one of the best-known documentary photographers of the 1930s along with Evans, both showed an influence by the straightforward, although poetic vision of Eugene Atget – who was the best know documentary photographer from Paris.
In 1938 the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) gave Walker Evans the first one-man exhibition for a photographer in its history. In the catalog, it was written that “Most of Evans’ early photographs reveal the influence of European modernism, specifically its formalism and emphasis on dynamic graphic structures. But he gradually moved away from this highly aestheticized style to develop his own evocative but more reticent notions of realism, of the spectator’s role, and of the poetic resonance of ordinary subjects.”
In June 1935, Walker Evans began working for the Farm Security Administration (then known as the Resettlement Administration,) a New Deal agency created to combat poverty during the Great Depression by the government of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In this venture, Evans traveled to the Southern states to provide a pictorial record of the living conditions of rural and small-town communities. Throughout this period, Walker Evans’s interest in the manifestations of local culture takes center stage as a subject.
Evans did not get along with Roy Stryker, who was in charge of directing the photographers for the FSA – and refused to put a ‘more positive spin’ on the human condition of dustbowl America. Shortly after, Evans received a temporary leave from the FSA and, in 1936, returned to the deep South – specifically southern Alabama, with the writer James Agee and the two worked on the groundbreaking book, “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.” The book documented the existence of three tenant families during the Depression and is now highly regarded for its journalistic and literary innovation and its unflinching but humane photographs.
What was so authentic and startling in Evans’ work was that he had captured the backbone of the country at a time when rural America had had very little exposure. Walker Evans created medium to large format pictures of common folk, of the working class, their churches, markets, and their customs. This honest approach at recording their lives and built environment generated a sense of dignity and respect for the traditions of the unpolished working class. Evans encapsulated an accurate depiction of the rugged Americanism so heartily used in political folklore, apparent now, with a documentary approach that treated the images not as romantic notions of place but as collectible pieces of history. Walker Evans’s photographs painted a clear picture of the challenges of the Great Depression for the average American. The photos very articulately presented a sense of local identity for rural southern Americans, who in the mid-1930s had found themselves resisting cultural conformity, upholding customs and mannerisms that were not part of the “new” industrialized economy that the development of modern urban cities afforded. Evans’ images became fundamental to the understanding of a broader and more stratified American history. They became deeply ingrained in the narrative of our complex American identity.
In a Sidewalk and Shopfront, New Orleans, 1935, the emergence of a woman in a striped blouse out of the barbershop styled striped façade is a serendipitous and almost amorphous occurrence. The French Opera Barber Shop, which offers Ladies neck trims and hair bobs for 15 and 25 cents, emphasized handmade artisanal qualities even through their stylized lettering. This photograph illustrates the notion of progress that arose from economic necessity.
“The much-published photograph of the woman in the doorway of the French Opera Barber shop sidewalk and shopfront, New Orleans 1935 – with the bold zebra stripes of the storefront and the sinuous stripes on the blouse of the woman standing in the doorway … is a glimpse of the realities of commercial life: “Ladies Neck Trim 15 cents;” Home of Perfecto Hair Restorer.” It represents a pocket of resistance to more conventional good taste, a kind of manic display of barber pole striping down to the light globe above the doorway – an antic moment, a celebration of an unexpected convergence. ” – Walker Evans by James R. Mellow
This picture is an example of the richness and the straight-forward style of Walker Evans. The composition is linear and dimensional; the image is unadorned but visually sophisticated. It is indicative of Walker Evans’s aesthetics and mindset. It shows one building front, one figure, and one location – but in its singularity, it stands for the cumulative force of hundreds of such individuals, hundreds of such businesses, and hundreds of such locations. The stylistic mastery and archival importance of work such as this transformed Walker Evan’s into an outstanding, influential figure for the history of America and the world of photography.