“Stare. It is the way to educate your eye, and more. Stare, pry, listen eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long.” Walker Evans
Walker Evans was born in St. Louis, Missouri, (1903) and came from an affluent family. His father was an advertising director. In 1926 Walker Evans dropped out of Williams College and arrived in Paris to launch his career as a writer. Though his life there revolved around the renowned Shakespeare and Company bookstore, a mixture of introversion and disdain for American culture kept him at a distance from the now famous expatriate circle of the era, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Murphy and the like. Evans said in an interview “The thing that kept me from knowing the Americans was that I was anti-American. I was not fleeing them but I disdained the moneyed, leisured, frivolous, superficial American who didn’t – well, like Scott Fitzgerald. I wouldn’t have paid any attention to him at all, however famous and successful a writer he was, because he wouldn’t speak French and had materialistic values. He was in love with the rich. I though this was terrible. I would have nothing to do with it.”
Evans was a huge fan of James Joyce. He said about Joyce in an interview “He was my god. That, too, prevented me from writing. I wanted to write like that or not at all.” Evans spent most of his time abroad alone and picked up his camera from time to time to document his immediate world, making images of his boarding room and his own shadow against a wall. When he returned to the States, Evans began to dedicate more time to his hobby, and by the end of his long career had established himself as one of the most important modernist photographers.
After returning to the United States, he began to establish himself as a photographer with images of architecture and everyday life. In 1933, writer Lincoln Kirstein described Evans’s work as possessing a ‘tender cruelty’, referring to his combination of a clear, factual gaze with empathy for his subject matter. In 1935, Evans joined the Farm Security Administration to document the lives of the rural poor at the height of the Depression. With writer James Agee, he produced an extensive study of white tenant farmers in the Deep South, published as Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941).
In 1943 Evans was hired by Time, Inc., and he spent the next 22 years with that publishing empire, most of them with the business magazine Fortune, with whom he developed a relationship as a photographer and writer that involved a comfortable salary and substantial independence. He continued to photograph architecture, especially rural churches, and he also began a series of revealing, spontaneous photographs of people taken in the New York City subways; the series was eventually published in book form as ‘Many Are Called’ in 1966. In 1965 he began teaching in the School of Art and Architecture of Yale University, and in the following year he retired from Time, Inc.
During the 1940 and ’50s—the heyday of photojournalism in the magazines—Evans, with his prickly, superior intelligence and jealously guarded independence, was not a useful role model for most working photographers. Yet, as the promise of the magazines began to lose its lustre, Evans increasingly became a hero to younger photographers who were not comfortable as part of an editorial team. Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand, Diane Arbus, and Lee Friedlander are among the most significant later photographers who have acknowledged their debt to Evans. His influence on artists in fields other than photography has also been great.
Walker Evans Little Known Polaroid SX-70’s
In 1973 Walker Evans began to work with the innovative Polaroid SX-70 camera and was given an unlimited supply of film from its manufacturer. The virtues of this camera, introduced in 1972, perfectly fit Evans’s search for a concise yet poetic vision of his world: its instant prints were for the infirm seventy-year-old photographer what scissors and cut paper were for the aging Matisse. The unique SX-70 prints are the artist’s last photographs, the culmination of half a century of work in photography. With this new camera, Evans returned to some of his key motifs -signs, posters, and their ultimate reduction, the letter itself. “Nobody should touch a Polaroid until he’s over sixty,” Evans once said. It was only, he implied, after years of work and struggle and experimentation, years of developing one’s judgment and vision, that the instrument could be pushed to its full, revelatory potential. Using the SX-70, and leaving aside the intricacies of photographic technique, Evans stripped photography to its bare essentials: seeing and choosing. The 300 images in a new book book, almost all of them unpublished, were selected from a total of approximately 2500 Polaroids that Evans left behind when he died in 1975.