“Leaving aside the mysteries and the inequities of human talent, brains, taste, and reputations, the matter of art in photography may come down to this: it is the capture and projection of the delights of seeing; it is the defining of observation full and felt.”
— Walker Evans
The Early Years
Evans began photographing regularly in 1928, while living in New York City. It was his goal to become a professional photographer, although it was difficult to find work. His first big break came in 1930, when three of his photographs were selected to be published in a poetry book by Hart Crane, titled The Bridge. This early work foreshadows his life-long interest in the imagery of urban architecture and industrial construction.
In 1933, Evans traveled to Cuba to take photographs for The Crime of Cuba, a book by American journalist Carleton Beals. Beals’s goal was to expose the corruption of Cuban dictator Gerardo Machado. For this project, Evans produced a number of portrait photographs using laborers, miners, and dockworkers. He also documented the urban street life in Cuba, including images of vendors, pedestrians, and signage. All of these themes would reappear in Evans’s later work for the FSA.
Fortune Magazine, 1934-1965
Evans worked for Fortune Magazine as a freelance photographer from 1934 to 1941. He became the magazine’s first full-time staff photographer in September 1945, and worked there until his retirement in 1965. During his early years at the magazine, Evans conducted the type of work that is perhaps typical of a magazine photographer: photographing a diverse range of subject for the purpose of accompanying a written article. However, over time Evans was able to develop and expand his own artistic view and his personal appreciation of classic American forms. Fortune magazine published several of his portfolios which featured photographs of New England homes, office furniture, and even hand tools.
The majority of Evans’s portfolios were presented as artisitic features and were not intended to convey factual information. He was allowed almost complete artistic license in his selection of subjects as well as the ultimate appearance of his portfolios. Evans prepared his own layouts and always specified how each image was to be sized and cropped. Often mistrustful of the competency of the editors, Evans would frequently physically cut his own negatives to ensure that the final image was cropped appropriately.
Farm Security Administration, 1935-1938
In late 1935, Evans was hired as an Information Specialist with the Resettlement (later Farm Security) Administration. He was expected to use photography to document the plight of the rural poor and the achievements of the New Deal. During his employment for the government, Evans photographed in areas of West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, Arkansas, and Tennessee. The images he produced during this time were frequently focused on portraiture, domestic interior scenes, urban streets, or architectural construction. And, as with his work for Fortune Magazine, Evans insisted on retaining artisitic and political control over his photographs. In the personal diaries, correspondence, and field notes that are housed in the archives of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, one can find evidence of Evans’s reluctance to produce anything that might one day be used as propaganda.
“[I] mean never [to] make photographic statements for the government or…anyone in gov, no matter how powerful – this is pure record not propaganda. The value and, if you like, even the propaganda value for the government lies in the record itself which in the long run will prove an intelligent and farsighted thing to have done. NO POLITICS whatever.” —Walker Evans, personal note, 1935
Although Evans is remembered as a FSA photographer, his most famous work is a series of photographs of Alabama sharecroppers produced for Fortune Magazine during a leave of absence from the FSA in 1936. Evans traveled to Alabama with writer James Agee in June 1936, where they encountered the impoverished Burroughs and Tingle families. For several weeks, Evans and Agee lived with these families, photographing, interviewing, and documenting their lives.
In the late fall of 1936, Agee and Evans submitted their article, with accompanying photographs, to Fortune. It was rejected by the magazine. For several years, Agee elaborated and lengthened the text of the piece, until it was published as a book in 1941. The work, titled Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, received little recognition until after Agee’s death in 1955 and a second edition was published in 1960.
Although Evans and Agee had a difficult time getting their work published initially, the photographs taken by Evans while in Alabama were displayed to the American public through various projects with the Museum of Modern Art. Walker Evans: American Photographs, an exhibition of one hundred pictures, was presented at the Museum of Modern Art between September 28 and November 18, 1938. A book, titled American Photographs, containing a selection of 87 images (33 of which had not been seen at the exhibition) was published simultaneously by the museum. And a circulating exhibit of 88 prints traveled to ten venues across the country after the show closed in New York. Although these projects used a diverse collection of photographs, they did include several of the images taken by Evans of the Burroughs and Tingle families. These previously unseen photographs received much attention and praise by the photography community and the general American public. The book American Photographs was reprinted multiple times, with a 50th anniversary edition published in 1988.
In 1938, Evans entered a New York subway car with a camera hung around his neck and hidden beneath his coat. The lens of the camera peered out from between two buttons of his coat and the shutter was rigged to a cable release that traveled down his sleeve and into the palm of his hand. Evans proceeded to take a series of photographs of the people riding the subway that day.
“Sixty-two people came unconsciously into range before an impersonal fixed recording-machine during a certain period of time, and all these individuals who came into film frame were photographed, and photographed without any human selection for the moment of lens exposure.” — Walker Evans, “Unposed Photographic Records of People,” 1962.
It was a difficult experiment for Evans, even with his extensive photography experience. He could not use a flash, because it would alert his subjects to the presence of the camera. In order to compensate for the lack of a flash, the shutter speed was slowed. Evans was not able to look through the lens and could therefore only guess as to the composition of the image. And the photographs could only be taken during the short moments when the train was paused at a station.
A limited selection of these photographs, known as the Subway Portraits, were published several years later in a 1956 edition of the Cambridge Review. A second set of images were published in a 1962 edition of Harper’s Bazaar. Then, in 1966, Evans published a collection of 89 subway portraits, titled Many Are Called. This publication was accompanied that fall by an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art of 40 additional subway photographs.
“As it happens, you don’t see among them the face of a judge or a senator or a bank president. What you do see is at once sobering, startling, and obvious: these are the ladies and gentlemen of the jury.” –Walker Evans, “The Unposed Portrait,” 1962.
For Evans, the subway portraits were an attempt to capture the ultimate purity of a recording method without human interference. He sought to reflect ordinary life in an organic and natural way. The subway portraits were also, in many ways, a rebellion against studio portraiture and the commercialization of photography. Evans criticized the inherently artificial nature of typical portrait photography, with its use of costumes, make-up, props, and posed stances. He also felt that contemporary photographers often focused too heavily on celebrities and politicians as the ideal subject, thereby overlooking the imagery of the average American citizen.
For More Information
This page provides only a brief outline of Walker Evans and his work. For more information, we recommend the various sources located on the Bibliography page.
The Walker Evans collection is housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art Archive. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org to learn about possible research opportunities.
All photographs taken by Evans for the Farm Security Administration can be found, free of charge, on the Library of Congress website: