The emergence of non-commercial still photography, in the form of an art is comparatively recent that may probably be dated from the 1930s. Just as poets use similar language as journalists, lawyers and curators, in the same manner, the ordinary realism of photography, including the medium of mug shots and real-estate ads, can be the material of visual poetry. In this context, the American photographer Walker Evans was among the first to identify this potential (Masters of Photography).
In the 1930s, Walker Evans contribution in the development of American documentary photography was significant. His each succeeding generation of photographers was greatly influenced by his precisely & comprehensive, frontal portrayal of people and artifacts of American life (Masters of Photography).
He abandoned his early ambitions of writing and painting and turned to photography, and as a result he reached at a dry, reasonable and modest style of photography that challenged to lay bare before the viewers, the most literal facts (Masters of Photography). From the beginning he was critical, giving it the term "artsicraftsiness" of art photographers, for instance, Alfred Stieglitz and the "commercialism" of those such as Edward Steichen (Masters of Photography).
His primary photography in the beginning was on environments rather than people; but his social concerns brought him in person with the victims of the Depression, which he tried to capture in daringly direct portraits in form of their stoicism. He believed with Baudelaire that an artist's job was to face head-on the cruelest realities and to describe them to the larger world. As he said:
The real thing that I'm talking about has purity and a certain severity, rigor, or simplicity, directness, clarity, and it is without artistic pretension in a self-conscious sense of the word (Masters of Photography)."
Most of Evans best work was in the 1930s, while his pictures have been celebrated as documents of the Great Depression. However, his concerns were far beyond the plight of the 1930s, and so his creative search of descriptive photography laid the fundamentals of a dynamic creative tradition (Masters of Photography). His restless inquisitiveness of identifying American uniqueness fundamentally broadened the engagement of advanced photography as well as modern art with the world outside the studio (Masters of Photography).
In the exhibition of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, his photographs are arranged in groups of eight, where each concentrate on a single dimension of his art and every group is presented together along with the works of other artists that have contributed to, drew upon, or else resonate with his work. In a meaning, that Evans is considered not just as one artist but as eight, and a single, complex tradition is traced eight times, each time with a different path.
Thus, just as some photographers seek to create beauty or to express any deep emotion, Evans's work can be described as a form of inspired curiosity, which is aimed at specifically framed questions rather than any fundamental answers (Masters of Photography). His work has shown that symbol exist in fact, while significance resides in the ordinary, and the description of expression can be a medium of humor, satire, comedy and intelligence. Through his photographs, he has also proved that if an artist looks externally rather than internally, beauty and emotion takes care of himself or herself automatically (Masters of Photography).
The following paper reviews on the life & work of Walker Evans. Being the pioneer in recognizing the potential in documentary and still photography, his photographs described and demonstrated at the museum has also been briefly included in the paper.
After providing a brief introduction about the photographer's style of work during 1930s, the paper provides a comprehensive and in-depth history of the life of Evans, including his family and education. Following the brief history, the paper highlights Walker Evans as an individual while the later part of the paper discusses his display of stages of career along with his important and significant works, awards and achievements during that era.
Brief History of Evans life & Work
Born in Saint Louis in 1903, his father was an advertising executive. Evans' family moved to a new suburb north of Chicago. His father took a job in Toledo, Ohio, which was upsetting experience for Walker to live in a small town full of immigrants. His mother and sister moved to New York in 1919 after divorce, while his father lived in Ohio and moved in with the woman next door (Capa, Encyclopedia of Photography).
At the age of sixteen he was sent to a boarding school in northern Connecticut and showed interest in contemporary literature (Joyce, Eliot, Hemingway, Pound). He dropped out of college after his freshman year and started to live in New York, where he began his writing.
He sailed to Paris to complete his abroad thirteen months education in international modernism; and also gathered most of the tools he would require to become an artist. After returning to New York in May of 1927, he bought with him French books, which were his literary aspirations and his handful of little photographs. He also went to Europe to study French literature. At that time no American abroad may feel properly accoutered without a camera. But this elegant young with his pocket camera took a few photos, on a lark. One was a picture of a grim-lipped soldier in the classical Palazzo Royale, Naples while, another shot was of a man who is wittily juxtaposed with a fanciful four-lantern street lamp that upstaged him slightly (Capa, Encyclopedia of Photography).
He also took several "arty" self-portraits of his beak-nosed, aristocratic profile in silhouette at Juan-les-Pins. On Christmas Day in the Luxembourg Gardens, he then gave camera to his mother who snapped his picture full-length in a Chesterfield and bowler, with his hands in his coat pockets, his narrow-eyed, long triangular face, in the softness of youth, he looked a little like Stan Laurel, without the sense of humor (Capa, Encyclopedia of Photography).
He possessed the instinct of storytelling, as well as the eye for detail and drama that makes long-lasting literature. However, as he lacked particular fluency, or generosity with words in his work he threw himself into this new medium, and applied to it the artistic criteria he once had learned from writers. And taught his students the same years later that "Fine photography is literature, and it should be" (Cosmo Polis, 2000).
Thus, carrying the sarcasm of modernist literature in one pocket, while rules and techniques of the Bauhaus in the other, Walker took angle views of Manhattan buildings and street scenes with ascetic grace and a lively spontaneity that would have not been possible a decade earlier. He also took shots of Wall Street Windows. This picture is an abstract composition worthy of Juan Gris that depicted a grid of black domino-shaped windows in a bleak white wall, viewed through the zig-zag of a fire escape (Capa, Encyclopedia of Photography).
In 1929 he shot the Brooklyn Bridge from underneath, which was a black wedge plunging into the froth of clouds. In the same year he took photograph of 42nd Street that showed a black woman in a cloche hat, covered in a fur stole, trapped by automobiles while the photographer is about to be surprised by a policeman (cropped headless) descending the stairs from the raised train (Capa, Encyclopedia of Photography). He also developed a series of sign collages such as Broadway in the year 1930 with marquee lights white on black that came on the cover of the trade journal Advertising and Selling as well as in Outdoor Advertisements (Capa, Encyclopedia of Photography).
It was by 1930 that his work was giving him $125 per photo. Thus, as he began to photograph seriously he used his photographs to illustrate an edition of his friend Hart Crane's The Bridge in 1930.
In the same year, at the recommendation of Lincoln Kirstein, he documented early Victorian houses in New England and New York, which were exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1933. He also created his own documentary style as a Stieglitz antipode and improved his concept of his subject to make it simple and clear-cut image that appears predictable, symbolic, and irreducibly right such as he made Philippe de Montebello (Cosmo Polis, 2000).
In 1930s, he also made eminent photographs of the depression era in the American South. While in 1931, he went on the road to New England for the Victorian architecture. In 1932, his first exhibition was held at the Julien Levy Gallery (Cosmo Polis, 2000). He went to Cuba in 1933, to present illustrations on the social scene for Carleton Beals's book "The Crime of Cuba" and 1934 through the middle-Atlantic states and the South. While, in 1935 he made photographs of African art, which were exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art for the purpose of distribution to colleges and libraries by the General Education Board (Cosmo Polis, 2000).