View Full Version : A Walker Evans Photograph

tim atherton
08-09-2006, 10:54 AM
The work of Walker Evans is probably the zenith of Modern photography (at least in North America) and he is certainly one of the most important U.S. photographers of the 20th Century.

As mentioned elsewhere, his photographs are "beautiful, as long as you understand that beautiful is the wrong word. Evans was always trying to get at truth. Not all truth, just the limited subset of it he could show". Another writer commented that his subway portraits were the first true example of the sublime in twentieth century American art.

Evans often seems sadly unnoticed by many photographers today, even when what they are doing is often influenced by him - though they don't always realise it.

Here's one of his photographs to think about and comment on (picking one is almost impossible... and the one I really wanted could only be found very small online - see next post)


tim atherton
08-09-2006, 10:55 AM
my first choice for discussion - but too small online...:


08-09-2006, 12:21 PM
http://static.flickr.com/7/8036061_4f1df456fc.jpg (http://www.flickr.com/photos/bjorke/8036061/)

That Evans image, which I remember being excited by at age 16 or so (though I was unaware of who made it, or even, I think, that it was a great deal older than I), is also one of my favorites (the one in the introductory series in Bystander -- three men eating -- I also find exceptional (and little-known)).

I used to be fascinated with how contemporary Evans's photos feel, despite the presence of Model T's and so forth. Over the past year or so I've ended up turning the question around in my head, and becoming increasingly convinced that the look of 20th-century modernism and the basic mechanical nature of photography are so tightly bound that it's little wonder than we can find so many Evans and Kertesz and Sander and even 19th century photos that, if not provided with peripheral clues like period objects or materials, could quite believably have been made in the last week.

This one in particular, since it seems to so vividly presage the self-referential and process-referential photography of later years.

Bill Hahn
08-09-2006, 12:57 PM
I've actually sat and studied those little portraits, wondering what occasioned them: birthday? anniversary gift? graduation? picture of baby for the relatives? It's hard to see this online, but the woman in the upper left corner of the second group up from the bottom right bears a strong resemblance to Lady Bird Johnson....

Was Evans attracted by the geometric regularity of the display (12 groups of 15 pictures each)? Or did he think it was a quick way to capture many faces of everyday folk? (Remember he captured anonymous workers one at a time on the street in Detroit in the 1940's....)

(For those who are not familiar with Evans, I can recommend the book "The Hungry Eye", the video "Walker Evans' America", and the book "Walker Evans: Polaroids".)

Lee Shively
08-09-2006, 04:28 PM
Evans gave us honest portrayals of the world. No idealizations, just realities. Straight, no chaser. We really need nothing more...or less. It's hard for me to say anything about Walker Evans--I love his work so much, I'm in silent awe.

08-09-2006, 05:55 PM
I was excited several years ago to get to see a Walker Evans Retrospective at the Houston Museum of Fine Art. Lots of images. Most Walker printed and mounted himself. The images were great the presentation was awful.


08-09-2006, 07:01 PM
This photograph is much different from much of Evans work in that it is close-in and includes no "live subjects".

On the surface it would seem to vary from his more well-known images that record the misery of the Great Depression.

And yet, it is very much within the "spirit" of his WPA assignment which was to document life in rural America in the 1930's.

With this particular photo I think he is trying to show that the "town photographer" was an integral part of village/rural life in the 1930's. People, almost no matter how strained their finances were, felt it was important to be photographed at certain "key" life milestones.

Not too long ago the NY Times had an article (probably seen by many here) about the "discovery" of a small town photographer's photos (I think he worked in Arkansas) and how their very "ordinariness" was so important in depicting the emphasis folks placed on recording their important life events (oops - run on sentence - sorry).

Here (I think), Evans has actually captured the display window of such a small town photographer. In those days, cameras were not readily available to most folks - and going "into to town" to the "photographer" to record an important life event was a family outing. And many small towns had a photo shop that was probably busy as hell every Saturday morning!

Bill Hahn
08-09-2006, 08:12 PM
Not too long ago the NY Times had an article (probably seen by many here) about the "discovery" of a small town photographer's photos (I think he worked in Arkansas) and how their very "ordinariness" was so important in depicting the emphasis folks placed on recording their important life events (oops - run on sentence - sorry).

I'm guessing Disfarmer - www.disfarmer.com.


08-09-2006, 08:19 PM
I'm guessing Disfarmer - www.disfarmer.com.



Thanks. Just did a NYT search on Disfarmer. He's the one.

The "magnificance of the ordinary" is how I would put it!

Alex Hawley
08-09-2006, 08:32 PM
My thoughts are pretty much the same as copake_ham. The town photographers were still around into the 1950s to great extent in our portion of the world. They eaked out a living like everyone else and its surprisiing to me that people would spend a little of the little money they had on a photograph.

Evans is a big influence to me. If I could emulate just one of the greats, it would be him.

Jim Chinn
08-09-2006, 10:37 PM
Evans had a good eye for little details that made an image interesting as well as a natural ability to compose and crop out in camera all extraneous details.
When looking at many of his photos you cannot find a single aspect that does not belong or does not make the image stronger then if it was excluded.

One interesting aspect of Evans is that he knew most of the movers and shakers in New York publishing as well as people such as Edward Steichen when he started the photography department at MOMA. IIRC from one of his biographies there were some pretty derisive comments about his work in a letter to Steichen from one Ansel Adams.

Bill Hahn
08-10-2006, 08:14 AM
Sometimes you can spot how Evans' eye for detail worked multiple times in one scene.
Remember the famous photo of the staircase, with each step having a bumper sticker for
"Royal Crown Baking Powder"? Look to the right in this other famous Walker photograph:


Lee Shively
08-10-2006, 10:53 AM
I recall reading (I think it was in "Walker Evans At Work") how he drove the printers at Fortune magazine crazy. He took his large format negatives and used scissors or a knife to cut them down to a precise cropping. Apparently he didn't always get the negative squared.

Frank C
11-01-2011, 12:19 PM
I've only seen Mr. Evans' work in book form ("American Photographs" and "First and Last") and online at Library of Congress. While there were many truly outstanding FSA photographers and photographs, there is something very special about Evans' work that cannot be put into mere words. To me, he saw and captured things often missed by others. To me this particular photograph was a tribute to the craft of portrait photography, to photographers such as the aforementioned Mike Disfarmer (The Heber Springs Portraits) and numerous others that captured the faces of America. In that one photo, he captured what would amount to today's social media (Facebook) and gave Americans a composite look at themselves. Something that they all could readily indentfy with long before today's mass media came along.