Walker Evans: Literate, Authoritative, Transcendent.

By Reeya Gadhvana, Philosophy, Politics and Economics Second Year

Walker Evans is a name I first came across incidentally. A mere passing mention – secondary to the genius of the fictional protagonist Tinker Grey, whom he supposedly captured in one of my favourite books, Rules of Civility. While the description of this photograph left a vague but lasting impression on my mind, I credited it to the brilliance of Mr Grey entirely. Handsome, intelligent, ambitious and dangerously charming; he was the embodiment of the 1920s and nostalgically reminiscent of characters from the Great Gatsby that I had grown up loving. However, when I next encountered Evans, the photograph was seen first. Prior to discovering the artisan to whom I should attribute the work, I instantly was reminded of the subway photograph of Tinker Grey, in part due to the captivating description Towles provided. It is, however, due to the fundamentally haunting nature of Evans’ work that Towles was granted the ability to provide such a glowing salute.

I have chosen examples of Evans’ work that I have found to be particularly captivating.

Born in St.Louis, Missouri in 1903, Walker Evans came of age as a photographer and photo journalist in the Depression-era, where his now renowned work for the Farm Security Administration and ensuing projects began. Prior to this, Evans’ higher education comprised of a year at Williams College studying French literature, and a year spent in Paris continuing his literary ambitions. Photography was yet an ever-budding hobby, exercised through sporadic snapshots in the ‘rues’ of Paris. These experiences culminated with the joining of a literary and art crowd in New York upon his return where Evans’ life-long affection for such a crowd began. Perhaps most notable is his time spent in Cuba with Ernest Hemingway, while documenting the vernacular* of Cuban society.

Literate in that they required no explanation, authoritative in their urgency and transcendent in their ability to enthral viewers decades after their capture.

It is, however, during the subsequent project in the Southern United States that his most captivating works were produced. In 1936, Evans was granted the task of creating a photographic documentation of the effects of the Depression, and consequently worked with writer James Agee on an infographic describing the lives of three white tenant families in southern Alabama. Later published as Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, this seismic work detailed three rural farming families afflicted with the tragedies of the Depression era. The portrayal of a ‘helpless’ and destitute bourgeoisie was met with some criticism, particularly by the working-class who felt themselves misrepresented. However, Evans’ refusal to romanticize the notions of poverty nonetheless captured impressionist ideals in his ability to revive interest in the otherwise neglected; an inadvertent homage to one of his influencers, Proust.

Dorothea Lange, 1936

Evans aimed for the portraiture to be “literate, authoritative, transcendent”, and managed to encapsulate all within his works. Literate in that they required no explanation, authoritative in their urgency and transcendent in their ability to enthral viewers decades after their capture. Evans’ works have been of equal significance to both his own and subsequent eras, shown by the multiplicity of artists and photographers that have been inspired by his take on the ‘documentary tradition’ of photography. Helen Levitt, described as “the most celebrated and least known photographer of her time.”, was a noteworthy mentee and contemporary of Evans between 1938 and 1939.

A multitude of Evans’ works are now on the public domain as wished prior to his death. His works have also been displayed in world-renowned centres of arts and culture. Walker Evans: American Photographs was a series at The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), New York, and the first exhibition in the museum devoted to the work of a single photographer. Amor Towles’ suggestions of Evans were in reference to a project of 1938, where the first New York subway photographs were taken with a hidden camera. These were collected in book form in 1966 under the title Many are Called. The first definitive retrospective of his photographs entitled Walker Evans was on view at The Museum of Modern Art in 1971, described as able to “individually evoke an incontrovertible sense of specific places, and collectively a sense of America”.

The death of Evans came suddenly, although not entirely unexpectedly, in 1975. It was The Estate of Walker Evans that handed over its holdings to The Metropolitan Museum of Art as the sole copyright holder for all works of art in all media by Walker Evans. The only exception was a group of approximately 1,000 negatives in collection of the Library of Congress, produced for Resettlement Administration and the Farm Security Administration which are now in the public domain.

A Portrait of Evans.

*For the photography aficionados the vernacular is in reference to photos of the quotidian elements of life as subjects in the absence of artistic pursuits.

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