Walker Evans is recognized, as art critic Hilton Kramer has stated, as “the preeminent photographer of his generation in America.” John Szarkowski, curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, described Evans’ photographs as “puritanically economical, precisely measured, frontal, unemotional, dryly textured, insistently factual,” and eloquently concluded that “his work constitutes a personal survey of the interior resources of the American tradition, a survey based on a sensibility that found poetry and complexity where most travelers had found only drab statistics or fairy tales.” Walker Evans was active as a photographer across much of the United States from 1928 until his death, and a number of his iconic and most poetic photographs were created in New Orleans and along the River Road in Louisiana. Today they survive as significant art photographs and as historic documents of a transitional era, the years of the Great Depression in Louisiana.
Evans photographed in Louisiana on his trips to the state in 1935 and 1936 during one of the most productive times in his career, when he created many notable photographs including those made in Hale County, Alabama, during the summer of 1936, in the company of writer James Agee, for their book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Evans was working in New York in 1935 when the art patron Gifford Cochran commissioned him to travel through the South to photograph Greek Revival architecture for a planned book on the history of the Greek Revival style in America. Evans was hired to serve as an Information Specialist in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Resettlement Administration (later known as the Farm Security Administration) in 1935. He returned to Louisiana and the Gulf Coast in 1935 and 1936 to document the people and conditions in the region for the federal government.
Walker Evans was born on November 3, 1903, in St. Louis, Missouri, into an affluent old-money family. Due to his father’s profession as an advertising director, the family moved often, and he later lived in Toledo, Ohio; Chicago, Illinois; and New York City. In 1922, after graduating from Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, Evans attended Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, for a year before he moved to New York City, where he worked in a number of jobs during the years from 1923 to 1926. With his father’s support, he traveled and studied in Europe from 1926 to 1927, planning to become a writer. While in Paris, France, he read and translated the works of leading French writers, but his interest increasingly turned to photography. As biographer James R. Mellow has indicated, Evans’s time in France marked a major turning point in his life: “He would come to regard his year abroad as his decisive break with American cultural values, at least what he regarded as the rampant commercialism of the late twenties.”
When he returned to New York in 1928, he continued to take urban photographs with his vest–pocket camera. By 1929, as he grew increasingly serious about a career in photography, he arranged to meet the photographic pioneer, Alfred Stieglitz, in his latest space, the Intimate Gallery, located at 489 Park Avenue. That same year, his roommate from Germany introduced Evans to the Leica camera (first available in Europe in 1925), which Evans borrowed to use in his work, and by 1930, Evans declared that he was a professional photographer. That year he met the photographer Berenice Abbott, who introduced him to the urban photographs of Eugene Atget (who had died in Paris, in 1927), and the street photographs of Ralph Steiner (who became a mentor to Evans).
While he was becoming a professional photographer, Evans witnessed a growing national focus on documentary style and the American Scene in photography, parallel to the American Scene in painting (associated with Edward Hopper, Thomas Hart Benton, and others), which incorporated everyday subjects and realities associated with daily life in the United States. This, combined with the aesthetic and social philosophies he developed in France, became significant for the type of photography he advanced in Louisiana, especially as he came to appreciate the complex history of the state and its distinctive architecture, including his recognition of the state’s architectural forms as symbols of the diverse economic, social, and racial realities he encountered there.
By the time of his first trip to New Orleans, in 1935, Evans had photographed in a remarkably diverse range of locations, including New York City (1930-35), Tahiti (1932), Cuba (1933), and the Deep South states of Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida (1931-35), where he documented the impact of the poverty, unemployment and adverse living conditions evident during the Depression era.
Evans arrived in New Orleans in February of 1935. He moved into an apartment in the Pontalba Building, overlooking Jackson Square at the center of the French Quarter. The French Quarter then was a bohemian enclave set among slums housing the poor and immigrant groups, with chickens and livestock boarded in the historic courtyards of the district. Evans met Jane Smith Ninas and her husband, Paul Ninas, a noted painter and member of the Arts and Crafts Club of New Orleans in the French Quarter. Jane Ninas began serving as Evans’s guide and assistant as he photographed the French Quarter, the city’s riverfront, its levee areas, and along the River Road with its expansive areas of Greek Revival and plantation architecture, sketching these scenes as Evans photographed.
Anticipating the fascination with roadside architecture and culture that would develop in post-war American photography (evident in the works of Robert Frank, William Eggleston, Lee Friedlander, and William Christenberry, among others), Evans photographed roadside scenes from his car, expanding his working process of snapping images of people, buildings, signs, and poignant scenes from a moving automobile. He initiated these experiments on his earlier trips in the South, then produced Louisiana images like Levee Scene, Vicinity of New Orleans (1935).
The influence of classic picture postcards upon Evans’s photographs was documented in an exhibition presented at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City in 2009, Walker Evans and the Picture Postcard, and a book of the same name written by the exhibition’s organizer, Jeff L. Rosenheim. Evans collected more than 9,000 postcards in his lifetime. One of the clearest examples of such a relationship offered by Rosenheim was his comparison of Evans’s Morgan City photograph to a similar postcard view, Front Street, Looking North, Morgan City, La. (printed in 1929). As Rosenheim noted, this comparison raised key questions about Evans and his working methodology. “Which came first, the postcard or the photograph? Did Evans stop at a local diner for a cup of coffee, see the postcard, and then wander the streets seeking out its location? Or did he make the photographs first and later discover that he had exactly duplicated the postcard view?” Rosenheim offered his conclusion: “The former scenario seems more likely…. Picture postcards offered precisely the anonymous, anti-aesthetic, documentary quality that he sought to achieve in his own work.”
Evans discovered a way to return to the South and to Louisiana, as well to see Jane Ninas again (they married in 1941, following her divorce from Paul Ninas), after he was hired by Roy Stryker to work for the federal Resettlement Administration. In Louisiana, in January of 1936, he shot many New Orleans images, including House with Greek Revival Front, Corner of Felicity and Orange Streets, House Near the Factory District, House with Cast Iron Grill Work, House in the Negro Quarter and The Margaret Statue (all now in the Farm Security Administration Collection, at the Library of Congress). Evans also traveled beyond New Orleans, producing images such as Roadside Stand, Ponchatoula, Louisiana (George’s Place) and Sign, Baton Rouge (Dry Cleaning).
Taking a leave from his federal position, Evans traveled to Alabama in the summer of 1936 to work with James Agee on an assignment for Fortune magazine, to create an article devoted to sharecropping and farm economics in the Deep South. Though the article was never published in Fortune, it became the basis for a long-term and unique collaborative undertaking by Evans and Agee, requiring more than five years to complete as their classic book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941). Only a small number of copies sold in 1941, disappointing both Agee and Evans, but the book was released in a new edition in 1960, and it became better known and highly influential.
In September 1938, Evans was given the first one-man exhibition devoted to photography in the history of the Museum of Modern Art, entitled American Photographs, which was accompanied by a catalogue of the same name with an essay by Lincoln Kirstein.
In the following years, as his reputation advanced, Evans was employed by Time magazine as a film, art, and book reviewer, then worked at Fortune magazine as a photographer and editor, becoming an influential force in photography and print journalism in that role from 1945 to1965.
After delivering a lecture at Yale University in 1964, he was invited to join its faculty as a professor of graphic design, and began to teach there in 1965. In 1974, Evans was appointed professor emeritus at Yale University. The following year, on April 10, 1975, Walker Evans died in New Haven, Connecticut. His work is featured in numerous museum and private collections, across the United States and the world, as well as in a number of New Orleans and Louisiana museum collections, including The Historic New Orleans Collection and the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans. In 2010, a significant exhibition of Walker Evans’s Louisiana photographs, drawn from the private collection of actress Jessica Lange, was presented at the Ogden Museum.Author: J. Richard Gruber, PhD
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Gruber, PhD, J. Richard "Walker Evans." In knowlouisiana.org Encyclopedia of Louisiana, edited by David Johnson. Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, 2010–. Article published September 12, 2012. http://www.knowlouisiana.org/entry/walker-evans.
Gruber, PhD, J. Richard "Walker Evans" knowlouisiana.org Encyclopedia of Louisiana. Ed. David Johnson. Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, 12 Sep 2012. Web. 23 Sep 2017.
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