Walker Evans (November 3, 1903 – April 10, 1975) was an American photographer best known for his work for the Farm Security Administration documenting the effects of the Great Depression.
Much of Evans' work from the FSA period uses the large-format, 8x10-inch camera. He wrote that his goal as a photographer was to make pictures that are "literate, authoritative, transcendent." Many of his works are in the permanent collections of museums, and have been the subject of retrospectives at such institutions as The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Born in Saint Louis, Missouri, Walker Evans was part of a well-to-do family. He graduated from Phillips Academy, in Andover, Mass. He studied literature for a year at Williams College before dropping out. After spending a year in Paris, he returned to the United States to join the edgy literary and art crowd in New York City. John Cheever, Hart Crane, and Lincoln Kirstein were among his friends.
Intimidated by the difficulty of writing great prose, Evans turned to photography in 1930. In 1933, he photographed in Cuba on assignment for the publisher of Carleton Beals' then-forthcoming book, The Crime of Cuba, photographing the revolt against the dictator Gerardo Machado. In Cuba, Evans briefly knew Ernest Hemingway.
In 1935, Evans spent two months at first on a fixed-term photographic campaign for the Resettlement Administration (RA) in West Virginia and Pennsylvania. From October on, he continued to do photographic work for the RA and later the Farm Security Administration (FSA), primarily in the Southern states.
In the summer of 1936, while still working for the FSA, he and writer James Agee were sent by Fortune magazine on assignment to Hale County, Alabama, for a story the magazine subsequently opted not to run. In 1941, Evans' photographs and Agee's text detailing the duo's stay with three white tenant families in southern Alabama during the Great Depression were published as the groundbreaking book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Its detailed account of three farming families paints a deeply moving portrait of rural poverty. Noting a similarity to the Beals' book, the critic Janet Malcolm, in her 1980 book Diana & Nikon: Essays on the Aesthetic of Photography, has pointed out the contradiction between a kind of anguished dissonance in Agee's prose and the quiet, magisterial beauty of Evans' photographs of sharecroppers.
The three families headed by Bud Fields, Floyd Burroughs and Frank Tingle, lived in the Hale County town of Akron, Alabama, and the owners of the land on which the families worked told them that Evans and Agee were "Soviet agents," although Allie Mae Burroughs, Floyd's wife, recalled during later interviews her discounting that information. Evan's photographs of the families made them icons of Depression-Era misery and poverty. Many years later, some of the subjects' descendants maintained that the family was presented in a falsely unflattering light by Evans' photographs. In September 2005, Fortune revisited Hale County and the descendants of the three families for its 75th anniversary issue.
Evans continued to work for the FSA until 1938. That year, an exhibition, Walker Evans: American Photographs, was held at The Museum of Modern Art, New York. This was the first exhibition in this museum devoted to the work of a single photographer. The catalogue included an accompanying essay by Lincoln Kirstein, whom Evans had befriended in his early days in New York.
In 1938, Evans also took his first photographs in the New York subway with a camera hidden in his coat. These would be collected in book form in 1966 under the title Many are Called. In 1938 and 1939, Evans worked with and mentored Helen Levitt.
It has been suggested that Evans provided the inspiration behind Andy Warhol's photo booth portraits, following the publication of 'Subway Portraits' in Harper's Bazaar in March 1962. Evans first experimented with photo-booth self-portraits in New York in 1929, using them to detach his own artistic presence from his imagery, craving for the true objectivity of what he later described as the "ultimate purity" of the "record method."
Evans, like such other photographers as Henri Cartier-Bresson, rarely spent time in the darkroom making prints from his own negatives. He only very loosely supervised the making of prints of most of his photographs, sometimes only attaching handwritten notes to negatives with instructions on some aspect of the printing procedure.
Evans was a passionate reader and writer, and in 1945 became a staff writer at Time magazine. Shortly afterward he became an editor at Fortune magazine through 1965. That year, he became a professor of photography on the faculty for Graphic Design at the Yale University School of Art (formerly the Yale School of Art and Architecture).
In 1971, the Museum of Modern Art staged a further exhibition of his work entitled simply Walker Evans.
Evans died in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1975. In 2000, he was inducted into the St. Louis Walk of Fame.