NEW YORK – Gritty portraits of a disheveled dockworker in Havana or a tenant farmer in Alabama, who unflinchingly stares into the camera, speak volumes about life’s harsh realities. Images captured by documentary photographer Walker Evans (1903-1975) tell rich stories of American life in the early 20th century. The self-taught photographer became synonymous with the Great Depression. While definitely relating to the period they were taken, his photographs transcend their era, resonating with and speaking to viewers today as fresh as the day they were printed in a darkroom.
Born in St. Louis, Evans studied in Paris, where he encountered the work of forward-thinking artists that inspired his early artistic direction. After returning to the United States in 1928, he borrowed a Leica camera and started taking dramatic shots of New York City’s architecture, These images are recognized for their abstracted and striking perspectives. Within a few years, however, he switched to shooting vernacular scenes of people and American culture.
While working for the Farm Security Administration 1935-1937, Evans created many photographs that were used in the groundbreaking exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1938, which was the museum’s first single-person exhibit. It was also during his stint at the FSA that he took a sabbatical to photograph Alabama sharecropper tenant families, whose images immediately captured the public and are still fascinating today.
According to the International Center for Photography, Evans’ work paved the way for the American documentary movement that really took hold in the 1930s and for street photographers later on. “His precisely composed, intricately detailed, spare photographs insisted on their subject matter, and his impartial acceptance of his subjects made his work seem true and aesthetically pure – qualities that have been the goal of documentary photography ever since,” according to the center’s website.
Not surprisingly, among the highest-selling images by Evans on LiveAuctioneers is his iconic portrait of Alabama cotton farmer Floyd Burroughs taken in 1936 that achieved £70,000 ($110,857) + the buyer’s premium at Phillips in London in May 2012.
“In the eyes of Floyd Burroughs is a fixed, intense integrity, his strength and unwavering determination magnified by the close crop of the frame, conveying almost a numbness to his current circumstances and a knowing willingness to survive,” according to the auction house.
Evans also took four portraits of Floyd’s wife, Allie Mae Burroughs, composing the shot starkly with her standing against the wall of the cabin they rented. The sharecropping family lived in a four-room cabin and did not own their land, nor even the farm implements. Of the four portraits he took of Allie Mae, “Although compositionally similar, they record distinct facial expressions ranging from bemused cooperation to brooding anger and resentment – moods conveyed by a slight tilt of the head, the furrows around the eyes, the angle of the pursed mouth,” according to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Evans was not only a photographer but reportedly an avid collector. In his travels, he acquired postcards, a passion for which he took to early on and lectured on later in his life; as well as tools, roadside signs and more. According to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which presented a major retrospective of the photographer’s work in 2017-18, photography was an extension of Evans’ penchant for collecting. Clément Chéroux, the museum’s senior curator of photography, who organized the exhibition, said in a museum blog that “photography became for him a convenient way to acquire things too big, too unwieldy, or too complex to physically remove from American roadsides to bring back to his home or studio.”
Collecting and art were twin passions and the two shared a deep interplay with Evans often staging photographs of his collections, such as when he juxtaposed American farming tools with European tools to illustrate the difference in decoration between the two. He is said to have likened a hardware store to a museum of sorts. He found not only beauty in the objects he collected and photographed but a cataloging of American culture from its businesses to products to its people.
And perhaps that is what lies at the heart of the appeal of Evan’s photography is his keen ability to capture the spirit of America in a single image.