Photography Masters - Walker Evans
Sunday Magazine

Photography Masters - Walker Evans

Siddharth S. Kumar

Siddharth S. Kumar

Seen as a major influence on the development of ambitious photography in the second half of the 20th century, Walker Evans, born in Missouri in 1903 was indisputably one of America’s greatest photographers. In fact, Evans has been regarded as a historian of life, due to his perpetually curious eye because his maxim was: ‘Stare. It is a way to educate your eye, and more. Stare, pry, listen, and eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long.’

While Evans started his professional journey in the 1920s with a stint in Paris where he was influenced by the photography of Frenchman, Eugene Atget, some of Evans’s highly acclaimed images are those he made of people in trying circumstances while employed with the government’s Farm Security Administration (FSA) from 1935 to 1938. Evans’ philosophy of the unstinting ‘stare’ of the camera was evident in one of his most memorable pictures from this period. It showed a tenant farmer’s wife in Alabama, a subtly touching portrait that came to be regarded as the Appalachian Madonna; but instead of being a subject of anguish, the woman seems to be mildly amused to be in front of the camera. But the unstinting stare of his camera, however objective he meant it to be, portrays with obvious feeling the plight of the underprivileged.

This is a photograph of a young couple in a parked car from his book “The Americans” which is considered to be one of the most important photobook to be published as it portrayed the state of affairs of America in the 1930s.

When in 1938 the Museum of Modern Art published American Photographs along with an Evans retrospective exhibition, out of the book’s 87 pictures between 1929 and 1936, more than a third of them related to the period he was in FSA.

Thus what gave his work a fresh perspective was the subtle appreciation of the subjects he selected for scrutiny-- dealing not with people but with the things they made. His vision was focused mainly with the character of American ethos as it was expressed in its local architecture and in its unofficial decorative arts, such as billboards and shop windows.

Evans’s photo of then 27-year-old Allie Mae Burroughs, photographed in 1936, a symbol of the Great Depression

During the lifetime of Evans, primarily, two competing philosophies of photography existed: Documentary and Pictorialist. While the former tried to represent the world as it was, flaws and all, Pictorialism projected a selective, transcendent view of the world, akin to traditional Western painting. In a way, Evans’ contribution was to blend these two philosophies, and usher in greater nuance to the practice of photography. Evans once said ‘What I believe is really good in the so-called documentary approach to photography is the addition of lyricism... produced unconsciously and even unintentionally and accidentally by the cameraman.’

In 1941 Evans joined hands with writer, James Agee, for Fortune magazine, which didn’t appear in the magazine and was published as a book Let us Now Praise Famous Men. The book was conceived as a study of three sharecropping families from Alabama. It turned out to be one of the oddest and most challenging books that have attempted to make sense of the combination of words and 31 un-labelled photographs. Capturing every aspect of the three families—their houses, their rooms, their furniture, their land—it is a lyrical journey to the limits of direct observation of the whole tragedy of the Great Depression. Evans’ photographs are brutally honest representation of the faces which are intimate, transcendent and enigmatic. His images in Let us Now Praise Famous Men are considered by many as the zenith of Evans’ career in photography.

Post the 1940s, Evans spent over two decades with Fortune, as a photographer and writer. He continued to photograph architecture, especially rural churches. The still life portraits he did for Fortune in 1955 was probably the clearest manifestation of Evans’s stare, wherein images of wrenches, pliers and other standard elements in countless toolboxes, placed against a pale gray background, appear devoid of any artistic manipulation.

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. This book of 89 photographs was taken by Evans with a 35mm Contax camera strapped to his chest, its lens peeking out between two buttons of his coat, Evans was able to photograph ordinary folks clandestinely, and at close range. Although the setting was public, he found that his subjects, engrossed in their own thoughts, conveyed a spectrum of moods and expressions—by turns curious, bored, amused, despondent, dreamy… Talking of these photos, Evans remarked, ‘The guard is down and the mask is off. Even more than in lone bedrooms (where there are mirrors), people’s faces are in naked repose down in the subway.’

Evans’ moving depression era images which showcases the general mood of gloom during the Great Depression.

At the age of 71, Walker Evans, the artist with the camera, passed away at Connecticut. As the New York Times mentioned in an obit feature, ‘His photographs were detached, even understated, but they all carried his trademark of factual exactness. Apart from influencing a younger generation of photographers, Mr. Evans's work affected the way many Americans saw the 20th century, especially the nineteen-thirties.’

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Siddharth Kumar, is the Co-Founder & Lead Photographer SIDART Photography, a professional photography venture focusing on weddings, portraiture and commercial photography. After an 8-year stint in an MNC, he decided to pursue his passion for photography and music. In 2019, he was awarded Certificate of Honorable Mention by International Photography Awards (IPA), Los Angeles. In 2014, he won the First Prize at the International Photography Competition organized by Mindshare Worldwide. He holds a Grade 8 Certificate in Piano Performance from Trinity College London.

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