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Walker Evans (1903–1975) is one of the most influential artists of the twentieth century. His elegant, crystal-clear photographs and articulate publications have inspired several generations of artists, from Helen Levitt and Robert Frank to Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, and Bernd and Hilla Becher. The progenitor of the documentary tradition in American photography, Evans had the extraordinary ability to see the present as if it were already the past, and to translate that knowledge and historically inflected vision into an enduring art. His principal subject was the vernacular – the indigenous expressions of a people found in roadside stands, cheap cafés, advertisements, simple bedrooms, and small-town main streets. For fifty years, from the late 1920s to the early 1970s, Evans recorded the American scene with the nuance of a poet and the precision of a surgeon, creating an encyclopedic visual catalogue of modern America in the making.
Born in 1903 in St. Louis, Missouri, Evans dabbled with painting as a child, collected picture postcards, and made snapshots of his family and friends with a small Kodak camera. After a year at Williams College, he quit school and moved to New York City, finding work in bookstores and at the New York Public Library, where he could freely indulge his passion for T. S. Eliot, D. H. Lawrence, James Joyce, and e. e. cummings, as well as Charles Baudelaire and Gustave Flaubert. In 1927, after a year in Paris polishing his French and writing short stories and nonfiction essays, Evans returned to New York intent on becoming a writer. However, he also took up the camera and gradually redirected his aesthetic impulses to bring the strategies of literature – lyricism, irony, incisive description, and narrative structure – into the medium of photography.
Most of Evans’ early photographs reveal the influence of European modernism, specifically its formalism and emphasis on dynamic graphic structures. But he gradually moved away from this highly aestheticized style to develop his own evocative but more reticent notions of realism, of the spectator’s role, and of the poetic resonance of ordinary subjects. The Depression years of 1935–36 were ones of remarkable productivity and accomplishment for Evans.
In 1938, the Museum of Modern Art opened American Photographs, a retrospective of Evans’ first decade of photography. The museum simultaneously published American Photographs – still for many artists the benchmark against which all photographic monographs are judged.
He worked at the luxe magazine as Special Photographic Editor from 1945 to 1965 and not only conceived of the portfolios, executed the photographs, and designed the page layouts, but also wrote the accompanying texts. Using the standard journalistic picture-story format, Evans combined his interest in words and pictures and created a multidisciplinary narrative of unusually high quality.
He is the co-author with James Agee of the legendary book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, 1941.
[edited via The Metropolitan Museum of Art]