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Walker Evans

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

February 1 - May 14, 2000

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

June 2 – September 12, 2000

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

December 17, 2000 – March 11, 2001

Just Add Hot Water...

"What I believe is really good in the so-called documentary approach to photography is the addition of lyricism….[this quality] is usually produced unconsciously and even unintentionally and accidentally by the cameraman."

-Walker Evans, lecture, Yale University, 1964

"Alabama Cotton Tenant Farmer Wife"

"Alabama Cotton Tenant Farmer Wife," By Walker Evans, 1936,

frontispiece of museum exhibition catalogue

By Michele Leight

The now-familiar face of Allie May Burroughs in "Alabama Tenant Farmer’s Wife," a 1936 photograph, shown above, by Walker Evans on his famous sojourn with James Agee, the writer, to the South during the Depression on assignment from Fortune Magazine, is one of the icons of 20th Century photography.

The magazine declined to published their collaboration, which was subseqently published as a book entitled "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" five years later to less than critical acclaim as the nation was preoccupied with the war in Europe. A re-issue in the 1960's, however, would result in the work finally being recognized as one of the classics of social documentary and photojournalism.

Evans took four pictures of Allie May and his first choice for an exhibition was one that showed this gaunt woman in a pose he considered that was her happiest, but he later substituted a more severe image for inclusion in the book. This is the one shown above and it also graces the entrance to this large exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art alongside the photographer’s name in big red letters.

The Burroughs were one of three families that Evans and Agee focused on and many of these images are among the finest produced during the dark days of the Depression along with some others by Dorothea Lange.

Allie May’s biting lip portrays long-suffering and despair and deprivation and is memorable in its starkness, a hallmark of much of Evan’s oeuvre. Her husband, who appears in several of Evans's pictures, had movie-star looks. Another very haunting and fine image is "Tenant Farmer Child [Laura Minnie Lee Tingle]," 1936, shown below, which is a great photograph because of its unusual angle that tips the viewer into the beautiful child's life. The group of cotton tenant photos is quite a remarkable reflection of families and the combined lyrical beauty certainly imparts a palpable reality to the hallowed American institution of family, albeit not in the conventional, or popular, sense. The pictures are intimate and rather mysterious and agonizingly proud. These are real people, shown in real surroundings, but without obvious emotional overlay, or themed statement by the cameraman.

"Tenant Farmer Child"

"Tenant Farmer Child [Laura Minnie Lee Tingle]," 1936

Evans's work with Agee produced one of the greatest collaborative artistic works of the 20th Century. Evans's work, however, was startlingly diverse. While this large exhibition presents visitors with something of an overload and perhaps too many documentary architectural pictures, there are plenty of gems that demonstrate that Evans had great talent.

Some images, such as "Fire Ruin in Ossining, New York," 1930, an image that conjures the greatness of Clifford Styll, are exceptional and very different from the rest of his work, while some of his early New York sign images and some of his Brooklyn Bridge pictures have a surprising monumentality.

"Clapboard House Front," 1930 is perhaps his finest architectural shot, a sensational detail of an exterior of a building's closed doorway with shadows that virtually pulls the viewer's hand to open the door!

"Joe's Auto Graveyard, Pennsylvania"

"Joe's Auto Graveyard, Pennsylvania," 1935

"Joe's Auto Graveyard, Pennsylvania," 1935, shown above, is a wonderful image, perhaps his best. The broad format of the picture is neatly divided in half horizontally with the sad fate of the fine cars of the period beneath a clear pasture topped by a few trees across the low horizon line, an image that conjures the great landscapes of Martin Johnson Heade and Monet's haystacks, but which is better. This photograph is probably the greatest American landscape image.

Despite his long and famous career, Evans remains much of an enigma, a half-hearted, but still rousing, rebel, and very much an "American" as opposed to an "aesthetisizing," or artsy, photographer, although he was deeply influenced by the work of Eugene Atget, the French photographer, from whom he became infused with a deep appreciation of spatial nostalgia - a respect for "presence" and the importance of documentation.

Much of the literature about him emphasizes his aversion to established values, his ambition, and his major focus on architecture and interiors rather than people, yet people were much in his lenses as this exhibition demonstrates in its inclusion of many of his shots from the book, "The Crime of Cuba," written by Carleton Beals, his "Subway" series of surreptitious shots of fellow travelers/riders, and in his many shots in the South during the Depression.

Of course, the perception of Evans as dispassionate is not completely inaccurate in that most of his shots of people are calm, relaxed, static, rather than wildly emotional or violent or traumatic. In the best of the pictures, of course, the quixotic lack of expression or the deep stares of his subjects are full of intrigue. What are they thinking about being photographed? Did their lives and lots improve?

Although some of his early architectural pictures in New York City were superb and would presage some of the great compositional work of such major "modernist" artists as Charles Sheeler, much of his subsequent architectural and interior photography was, with a few exceptions, not extraordinary. Late in his career, he would become an important staff photographer for Fortune magazine, which was always noted for the very high quality of its photographs. His photographs of people, on the other hand, were often inspired.

In his excellent and long introduction to an 1988 edition of "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men," John Hersey observed that at Harvard Agee "became a nocturnal animal by choice; a maverick, rebellious against the conventions of his habitat, too fond of the release of alcohol; a nonstop talker; a bonfire of tobacco; an amorist; and a wizard with perfectly unexpected words." After his freshman year, Agee, Hersey wrote, "went bumming across the land as a bindlestiff, decades before Kerouac" He would write to Dwight Macdonald, whom he had met at Harvard, that he needed a job and Macdonald spoke to Ralph Ingersoll, then Fortune's managing editor who had been aware of a parody of Time magazine that Agee had done at Harvard and gave him a trial job on the 52nd floor of the Chrysler Building. "Agee would soon be assigned to write a story on the Tennessee Valley Authority and Henry Luce told him it was one of the finest pieces ever to have run in Fortune. In 1934 Agee wrote the text to accompany a portfolio of photographs of that year's drought taken by Margaret Bourke-White, whose later work, with its emotionalism and over-dramatization he came to despise," Hersey wrote.

"In June, 1936," Hersey continued, "he was assigned to do a story on sharecroppers in the Deep South. Furthermore, the editors granted his request for Walker Evans, not Bourke-White, to be the photographer to work with him…..Walker Evans was at the peak of his powers. The son of an advertising executive, he had grown up in Kenilworth, a middle-class suburb of Chicago, attended two prep schools, Loomis and Andover, and entered Williams College. He dropped out after his freshman year, and in the mid-twenties went to Paris, hoping to write; he audited at the Sorbonne, read Flaubert and Baudelaire, and gazed at James Joyce from across the room in Sylvia Beach's bookstore, but found he couldn't for the life of him haul words up out of the deep well of his reserve….[and] returned to New York. He was repelled by what he then considered (he later changed his mind) the artiness of Alfred Stieglitz and the commercialism of Edward Steichen, and he thought he might be able to give precision and clarity to a humbler mode - that shared by newspaper pictures, newsreels, postcards, real-estate ads. With the help of people such as Muriel Draper, Lincoln Kirstein, Hart Crane, and Ben Shahn, he developed a style distinctly his own, based on a strict standard: he must let his eye and the camera's lens discover reality, not fabricate it. Agee, who had met Evans a few years earlier, was entranced by this self-effacing scrupulousness. He admired enormously the photographs of the rural poor Evans did for the New Deal's Resettlement Administration, and he yearned now to achieve their...exactness in his prose. He shared Evans's dislike of government bureaucrats and Luce bureaucrats, and he also felt comfortable with Evans's slightly vinegary temperament, his irony and his candor."

Agee and Evans went to Alabama where Agee would eventually befriend three cotton sharecroppers, Frank Tingle, Bud Fields and Floyd Burroughs, and win the trust of their families. Hersey notes that Allie Mae Burroughs later said that Agee and Evans were described by others as "spies from Russia but anyway we knowed that they wasn't going to hurt us, and they didn't." Agee's original draft of the article was very long and the editors at Fortune finally gave up on it. Hersey wrote that Harper & Brothers made an offer for a book, that was originally entitled "Cotton Tenants: Three Families," but Fortune said it was its property, and the Depression was waning and war loomed. The editors at Harper & Brothers wanted extensive revisions. Evans agreed to make changes, but then refused and Harpers dropped the book. Agee would retitle it and got a job reviewing movies at Time where his office mate was Whittaker Chambers, who would later become the famous accuser of Alger Hiss of being a Communist.

Hersey recalls that he, "like everyone else on the staff, reverberated to the beautiful arias of James Agee in the book section and knew that he was the best writer Time had ever had. In time. a friend of Agee's at Fortune took his book to Houghton Mifflin and they recognized 'a work of great oddity and power, with passages worthy of comparison to some of Hawthorne and Melville and Thoreau'…..Agee urged editors to produce the book on newsprint, to make it cheap enough for tenant farmers to buy…In August, 1941, five years after the trip to Alabama, "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" was published."

According to Hersey, "Agee's work for Luce : special challenge - to try to set truth free in what he saw as the headquarters of lying."

Hersey provides the following commentary on "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men":

"It would not be easy to live up to Evans's photographs. These were not 'candid'; they did not 'expose'; they were not glimpses of lurid Americana stolen from tricky angles, as in many of Bourke-White's pictures. In setting up a group photograph, Evans would let his subjects assemble and arrange themselves in any way they wished, and he would take his picture only when they were at ease and fully conscious of the camera eye staring straight at them, at home in their setting and in command of themselves. He bestowed on the objects in the families' homes a similar tact and respect, as if things too had the right to defend themselves against the lens. The resulting photographs did not propagandize squalor; they gave full scope to the timeless dignity, beauty and pain of rounded lives. Nor would they turn out to be mere illustrations of Agee's prose; they were, in the end, a powerful collaboration with it."

Hersey wrote that the book's review in The New York Times by Ralph Thompson was "not encouraging, indeed, scathing, describing Agee as 'arrogrant, mannered, precious, gross.'" "Selden Rodman wrote in the Saturday Review that Agee was 'an Ezra Pound in Wolfe's clothing' but praised 'the unparalleled intensity of much of the writing.' And Time Magazine's reviewer John Hessey hailed it as 'the most distinguished failure of the season.' By the end of the year it had sold only a few more than six hundred copies," Hersey added.

In the Kenyon Review a year later, however, Lionel Trilling praised the book, although Hersey observed that Trilling noted "a failure of moral realism."

"It lies in Agee's inability to see these people as anything but good. Not that he falsifies what is apparent: for example he can note with perfect directness their hatred of Negroes; and not that he is ever pious or sentimental, like Steinbeck and Hemingway. But he writes of his people as if there were no human unregenerateness in them, no flicker of malice or meanness, no darkness or wildness of feeling, only a sure and simple virtue, the growth, we must suppose, of their hard, unlovely poverty….Agee is perfectly conscious of this guilt and it is in order to take it into account that he gives us so many passages of autobiography and self-examination….And yet, even when this failure has been noted, Agee's text still is, it seems to me, the most realistic and the most important moral effort of our American generation," Trilling wrote.

In 1948, the book went out of print, having sold only 1025 copies and Agee would became a novelist and a screenwriter of "The African Queen" for John Huston and "The Night of the Hunter" for Charles Laughton. Agee died in 1955, but two years later his novel, "A Death in The Family," won the Pulitzer Prize and within three years McDowell published two volumes of "Agee on Film" and Hougton Mifflin reissued Let Us … and then George Barziller published "Letters of James Agee to Father Flye," an Episcopal priest who Agee met when he was at prep school and who would become his lifelong mentor. Father Flye was a short wisp of a man who spoke very softly and would later in his life spend considerable time at St. Luke's Church in Greenwich Village with its rector, the Rev. Paul Weed, a saintly intellectual.

Hersey correctly emphasized the book was an extraordinary venture of two men that captures not just the pathos but also the reality of the Depression generation with grace and sympathy, not condescension.

This exhibition, which received funding from Prudential Securities, and the catalogue, which is published by the museum in conjunction with the Princeton University Press, draw on newly accessible diaries, papers and negatives from Evans's vast personal collection, now the Walter Evans Archive at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

It shows that Evans was also a clear-eyed observer of much else: of spare interiors, urban juxtapositions, gatherings in small towns, roadside stands, exuberant hand-lettered signs, city-dwellers caught in moments of private isolation.

In his forward to the catalogue, Philippe de Montebello, the museum's director, describes Evans as "the progenitor of the documentary style in American photography," adding that his oeuvre was "surprisingly varied." "A thorough comparison of all Evans's negatives allows us to see how, time after time, Evans refined his concept of his subject and worked to make a seemingly simple, straight-forward image appear inevitable, large in its symbolism, and irreducibly right....At the dawn of the twenty-first century we admire his concise and understated idiom, rigorous standards, formal mastery, and poetic evaluation of the vernacular."

Evans's work can give the impression that he was an "outsider," and did not want to pry into the lives of his subjects, but his career was definitely one of an "insider" and while he stopped short of tabloid prying, his work provokes great interest in his subjects.

Schooling proved erratic for Evans: public school in Toledo, Ohio, his parents' divorce leading to a boarding school in Connecticut which he was asked to leave [Loomis], Mercersberg Academy in Pennsylvania, Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachussets and finally, phew, Williams College in 1922. He stayed for two semesters, cutting classes and preferring to hang out in the library where he read the hot literary works of the day. The early 20’s were "the greatest period of literary and artistic innovation since the Renaissance" according to the exhibition catalog.

At Williams he filled himself to overflowing with Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, Ezra Pound, E.E. Cummings, T.S. Eliot and the brilliant literary critics of the day. He also read "The Dial", which would-be writers, Evans included, read from cover to cover. T.S. Eliot’s "The Waste Land" was first published in "The Dial." Eliot was born in Saint Louis, like Evans, and went on to become one of the most influential poets of his day, profoundly influencing Evans.

Eliot expressed intense emotion impersonally, distancing it; country and epoch were more important than the self. These qualities were carefully absorbed by Evans, who later applied them to his photography. Joyce was his great hero, but one he never felt he could measure up to. In Eliot’s verse he found the epic, the heroic, which is not surprising since Eliot had read the classics at Harvard, and it is ultimately the "classical" quality of Evans images which made them great ones. The tiny clapboard churches are classically proportioned and dignified, such as "Church, Beaufort, South Carolina," 1936, the billboards are utilitarian yet monumental, such as "Sign, New York," 1928-30, his buildings and streetscapes awe-inspiring in their spareness and fine-tuned symmetry, "such as "Wall Street, Windows," 1928-30. It was no longer Europe but America that was building the monumentally sealed structures and Evans was quick to capture it.

The spare cutting-edge poetry of E.E.Cummings, another classical scholar, was also a major influence, but more akin to his late Polaroid work, such as "Sign Detail," 1973-74 and "Traffic Markings, Old, Saybrook, Connecticut," 1973, and "[Traffic Arrow]," 1973-4, shown below.

"Traffic Arrow"

"[Traffic Arrow]," 1973-4

Evans owned a copy of Cummings's fifth volume of poetry, "is 5," which encapsulated much of the revolt from middle-class values and a reaction against the power of advertising. The museum catalogue quotes only the opening part of the second poem in the book, entitled "Poem, or beauty hurts Mr. Vinal," which was originally published in 1926.

Here is the complete poem, as published in the 1996 $12 paperback published by Liverighj Publishing Corporation, New York, which is part of W. W. Norton & Company:

take it from me kiddo

believe me

my country, 'tis of


you, land of the Cluett

Shirt Boston Garter and Spearmint

Girl with the Wrigley Eyes(of you

land of the Arrow Ide

And Earl &


Collars)of you i

sing: land of Abraham Lincoln and Lydia E. Pinkham,

land above all of Just Add Hot Water And Serve-

from every B.V.D.


let freedom ring


amen. i do however protest, anent the un

-spontaneous and otherwise scented merde which

greets one(Everywhere Why)as divine poesy per

that and this radically defunct periodical. i would

suggest that certain ideas gestures

rhymes,like Gillette Razor Blades

having been used and reused

to the mystical moment of dullness emphatically are

Not To Be Resharpened. (Case in point


if we are to believe these gently O sweetly

melancholy trillers amid the thrillers

these crepuscular violinists among my and your

skyscrapers-Helen & Cleopatra were Just Too Lovely,

The Snail's On The Thorn enter Morn and God's

In His andsoforth


do you get me?)according

to such supposedly indigenous

throstles Art is O World O Life

a formula:example, Turn Your Shirttails Into

Drawers and If It Isn't An Eastman It Isn't A

Kodak therefore my friends let

us now sing each and all fortissimo A-






You. And there're a


all of you successfully if delicately gelded(or spaded)

gentlemen(and ladies)-pretty




americans(who tensetendoned and with

upward vacant eyes,painfully

perpetually crouched,quivering,upon the

sternely alloted sandpile

-how silently

emit a tiny violetflavoured nuisance:Odor?



comes out like a ribbon lies flat on the brush

When one has digested such strong energetic intellectual rebellion, one can easily be inspired to search for new visions, new ways to interpret and shape life and Evans, a very handsome product of the establishment, was not immune to its fervor.

The American literary climate in Evans formative years was rebellious and disenchanted; in 1921, Harold Stearns wrote in "America and the Young Intellectual" that "All our institutional life combines for the common purpose of blackjacking our youth into the acceptance of the status quo" and John Peale Bishop wrote in "Smartset" in 1921 that "If ever I find myself the father of an extraordinary youth I shall not send him to college at all. I shall lock him up in the library until he is old enough to go to Paris." So Evans took off for Paris, where he soon found himself the nobody in a pack of literary and artistic giants; Ezra Pound, Cummings, Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds, Calder, Man Ray and Berenice Abbott.

Evans used to spend hours in Sylvia Beach’s bookstore, Shakespeare and Company, on the Left Bank. He rejected her offer to meet his idol, Joyce; she had published "Ulysses" in 1922. Shakespeare and Company had the courage to take it on where other publishers dared not. He left the bookstore when Joyce entered and, in despair, destroyed all his writing, the first hint of an "all or nothing personality." With writing out the window, he started taking snapshots, mostly of himself, some just of his shadow.

Photography came upon him: "I just caught it like a disease," he said, with typical bluntness. His education continued with French studies, including the work of Flaubert, whose prose style, cool and objective, was reflected in Hemingway’s writing. Here was an idol more tangible, an "American in Paris" from a Chicago suburb, who structured his stories on, "the unnoticed things that make emotions," observed Maria Morris Hambourg in her essay, "A portrait of the Artist," in the museum's catalogue.

The year Evans spent in Paris, 1926, was important intellectually, and presented him with a less jaded perspective of his own country. Berenice Abbott, also an American living abroad from 1921 to 1929, recalled, "During the last three years the yeast was rising in me and I was more and more interested in America…I read this book, Les Etats-Unis d’aujourdhui, which was really fascinating, for it was the objective eyes of a foreigner on this country. I felt that I could see America freshly too, because I had been so long away."

This feeling to return home was shared by Evans as was their admiration for Shakespeare and Company's writers, and it was her acquisition of the contents of the photographer Eugene Atget’s studio after his death in 1927 which brought Evans closer to this almost unknown photographer's work. Back in New York, Abbott made prints from Atget’s glass plate negatives. He had died without ever seeing his work displayed in a salon or shown to the public. Evans was deeply moved by them and took a few prints with him. It is not difficult to see the kinship between Atget’s "Bedroom of a Female Labourer, Rue de Belleville," 1910, and Evans "Kitchen, Truro, Massachusetts," 1931 and "Burroughs Family Cabin, Hale County, Alabama," 1936.

Atget, Hambourg observed, "had been a wholly independent operator, making pictures that were documents, not 'art', according to the dictates of his own imagination." "At a moment when mechanical and materialistic qualities were suspect, he supplied the stabilizing roots of tradition, a tradition that ran backward from the popular arts of Paris in the Twenties, [which Evans had himself witnessed], through the centuries to a venerable medieval and classical past....Atget’s example opened a viable alternative course - making apparently straightforward documents of ordinary things that unveiled their cultural value."

Atget used to sell his images of streetscapes to painters, and Evan’s "Factory Street in Amsterdam, New York," 1930, could have been adapted by Utrillo or Pissarro with virtuoso brushwork as it has echoes of those great "street" masters, unpeopled and silent, a nowhere town with nobody.

By 1928 the writing had given way to more and more photographing, and in 1929, aged 26, Evans first published photograph appeared in the literary magazine Alhambra, showing the Lincoln Building going up on East Forty-Second Street. He earned a living at various odd-jobs in New York, shared an apartment near the Brooklyn Bridge with his best friend Hanns Skolle; the poet Hart Crane lived down the road and they roamed Brooklyn and New York together, Crane in the midst of his epic poem on the Brooklyn Bridge. Evan's "Brooklyn Bridge," 1929, well illustrates Crane's poem.

Hambourg recounts that the photographer worked in a bookstore on 57th Street "where he met others with a weakness for Baudelaire, Proust or Cocteau."

"One of those like-minded souls was Lincoln Kirstein, the brilliant Harvard undergraduate who in 1927 founded Hound & Horn, a sophisticated review of arts and letters, and two years later organized the Harvard Society for Contemporary Art with a couple of other students. Those undertakings put Kirstein at the center of a wide web of talent that included his favored contemporary writers, artists, photographers, dealers, collectors, patrons, and curators. Among them were Eliot, Pound, Cummings, Tate, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Katherine Anne Porter, John Cheever, James Agee, A. Hyatt Mayor (later to become curator of prints at the Metropolitan Museum), Gaston Lachaise, Rockwell Kent, Ralph Steiner, [Berenice] Abbott, and the publisher Harry Crosby. By 1930, when he began to see Kirstein frequently, Evans was living with a sense of excitement that came from a new amalgamation of his talents. 'I became a passionate photographer,' he recalled. 'Couldnt' think about anything else....' Evans entered the modern photographic world on the wings of the New Vision - Laszlo Moholy-Nagy's term for progressive European photography characterized by surprisingly angled views and experimental processes such as photograms, negative prints, and multiple exposures. Both of German background, Evan's roommates...helped him discover that his vision of New York - hard, dark, geometric, jazzy, literate, soaring and bittersweet - fit handsomely into the modern style….Evans also saw that what he was doing with the camera in some way paralleled what the poet Hart Crane was doing with words. Crane…who was Evan's friend and enthusiastically endorsed his new endeavor, strove to make his own ecstatic poems something like a photograph, ….Encouraged by Crane and other colleagues, Evans went in late 1928 or early 1929 to see the sixty-five year-old patriarch of American fine-art photography, Alfred Stieglitz. A key figure in the American modern art world and founder of the Photo-Secession group and the magazine Camera Work. Stieglitz in his own photography had moved on from painterly 'pictorialism' to descriptive clarity but had retained an emotional, personal approach. When Evans arrived, the master was not in, although his wife, Georgia O'Keefe, graciously looked at the young man's photographs; conversation between the two men had a wait for another day. In the end, although Evans thought Stieglitz's photographs excellent and followed up with a trip to the print room of the Metropolitan Museum to study more examples..., the two did not hit it off at all. The old man was an intolerable egoist....'It was disastrous on both sides. We didn't like each other,' Evans remembered. Steichen was successful also at the time and Evans felt "angry, and anxious to go in the opposite direction of these two men."

"Wall Street Windows"

"Wall Street Windows," 1928-30

"Evans," Hambourg continued, "must have seen that the jazzy machine aesthetic of his own early New York photographs...suspect too. His path would have to be straighter and less obviously stylish...., casting about for photographs that might lead him out of his artistic cul-de-sac, Evans came across a single image, Paul Strand's Blind, in Camera Work. It excited me very much…it was strong and real….a little bit shocking: brutal.'"

Honesty became an important theme, especially in the face of what he considered the hypocrisy of the corporate establishment.

To the artist and writers who had grown up in the era of capitalist expansion and "had always resented its barbarism, its crowding out of everything one [cared about], the Depression was, ironically, stimulating," Hambourg wrote. "This kind of anti-art became the hallmark instead of Henri Cartier-Bresson, whose small hand-camera aesthetic Evans immediately admired when the French photographer's pictures were first shown in New York in 1933…..he could satisfy the standards that his exacting, methodical nature dictated by waiting, or even returning, to capture a precise rake and quality of light. This very deliberate technique shielded Evan's acute self-consciousness and accommodated a certain deep-seated formality' [and] it also allowed him to pay considered attention to structural issues that very much interested him."

Kirstein noted in his diary November 12, 1930 that Evans said he had nothing but disdain for all other photographers. The only one accepted was Ralph Steiner, who escaped opprobrium for several reasons; he had recently been useful to Evans..; he was not a major 'god' and so did not represent a threat; and he looked like a kindred spirit, Hambourg wrote.

Evan's remarks on Steiner were made in the context of an exhibition organized by Kirstein that had just opened at the Harvard Society of Contemporary Art with photographs by Man Ray, Moholy-Nagy, Steichen, Edward Weston, Stieglitz, Strand, Steiner, Abbott, Evans, and other artists, as well as examples of press, medical, astronomical, and "industrial" types of photography. "A smaller and somewhat Americanized version of the famous Film und Foto exhibition that had toured Europe in 1929 and 1930 to great acclaim, Kirstein's exhibition was the first ecumenical conspectus of modern photography in the United States, and it ushered in a dramatic expansion of interest in the medium during the 1930s," Hambourg observed.

Soon thereafter another exhibition at the Weyhe bookstore with Abbott's portraits of Joyce, Cocteau, Gide and Eugene Atget opened. Evans, who had become friends with Abbott shortly after her return to New York in late 1929, shared not only her admiration for the Shakespeare and Company writers but also her fascination with the work of Atget. Evans visited Abbott in her studio at the Hotel des Artistes on West 67th Street where her vast Atget collection were housed and, Hambourg wrote, "Evans would later admit he was quite electrified and alarmed by Atget."

"Rich in true art but poor by society's standards, Atget had the properly inverted values…between the lofty aesthetics of the Stieglitz circle and the venal bondage practiced by Steichen and his ilk" and his "love for the visibly timeworn, the naïve, and the popular chimed with Evan's own passion for the discarded object and the unpretentious art of the people," Hambourg noted.

Evans wrote "The Reappearance of photography' in 1931 for Hound & Horn, which would be his personal manifesto that included a denuncation of false gods and an attack on those whose "general note" was "money, understanding of advertising values, special feeling for parvenue elegance, slick technique, overall of which is thrown a hardness and superficiality that is the hardness and superficiality of America's latter day, and has nothing to do with any person."

Evans praised Atget: "His general note is lyrical understanding of the street, trained observation of it, special feeling for patina, eye for revealing detail, over all of which is thrown on a poetry which is not 'the poetry of the street,' or 'the poetry of Pairs,' but the projection of Atget's person."

Kirstein, who introduced him to Muriel Draper, served as his principal agent, Hambourg wrote; "He generously provided critiques, connections commissions and the inside track at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which was founded in 1929 along the lines of Harvard's Society for Contemporary Art. Evan's involvement with Kirtsein and his inclusion in exhibitions at the museum, especially his notable solo exhibition and book of 1938, secured him his acknowledged status as poet laureate of the documentary style."

In his catalogue essay, "Exile's return: the early work 1928-34," Douglas Eklund recalls that Evans moved into a house next to the Brooklyn Bridge in 1928 with Hanns Skolle, a German artist, and they lived down the street from Hart Crane. "Through his brother-in-law, he got clerical jobs for himself and destitute Crane in an investment house," Eklund wrote, adding that Evans was looking at and for the "vanishing New York of Whitman and Melville" and "caught on the sly people, surreptitious shots as prescient flashes, first steps in fixing the fleeting citizenry."

This was a time when "European magazines [were] hungry for startling views [such as Evans's multiple exposure picture of Broadway theater signs] of this most photogenic of American cities," and Berenice Abbot took many of her early New York photographs on "spec" for such magazines. "In 1930, Guy Pene du Bois [the artist and art critic who lived at 20 West 10th Street] called for photographers to record the American scene."

Soon after Fortune magazine had published an article with photos by Ralph Steiner about America's "Vanishing Backyards" as part of a beautify American campaign. Evans borrowed Steiner's view camera, but Evans, Eklund wrote, would describe him as "as a bitter little Jew, intelligent, whose limitations are skillfully blurred." "Aside from being a by-no-means isolated expression of Evan's anti-Semitism, the passage reveals that Steiner encouraged Evans more than Evans later remembered and that his rarely seen street photographs…had an impact on the younger artist," Eklund maintained. "A comparison of Evan's torn movie poster...confirms Evan's cold assessment that Steiner was not making the most out of his material - a criticism that probably provided Evans with a convenient justification for using some of Steiner's subjects," Eklund wrote.

In 1931, Evans went with Kirstein and the architectural historian John Brooks Wheelwright on a tour of the Boston area to photograph buildings with eclectic architectural styles as well as some local industrial architecture - "with an eye toward an historical survey in both book and exhibition form," according to Eklund. "While the work was never published," Eklund continued, "Kirstein did manage to slip nearly forty of Evan's little photographs onto the walls of the Museum of Modern Art in late 1933, during the first retrospective of the works of Edward Hopper, who had painted similar architectural subjects since the mid-1920s."

Interestingly, Evans's architectural photographs in the exhibition were attacked by a reviwer for Architectural Forum in an article entitled "Cruel Camera" that argued that his pictures "held up to ridicule the sins of the carpenters and architects who flourishing in the 'General Grant' era."

Undeterrred by such criticism, Evans went on another trip with Charles Fuller, an architect, and produced some fine pictures of upstate New York, especially a street scene in Saratoga Springs. Eklund wrote that this picture of the town's main street expressed an order: "the usually surpressed but always implied ideal, the sustaining fiction, that underlines all of Evans's work. Cars and houses freshly washed and in line, Dutch Elms towering like the ones that line the streets of the artist's home,…a vision of a world restored and a wish fulfilled."

In 1931, Evans spent the summer with Ben Shahn, the great painter of social protest, and his family at their house in Truro on Cape Cod. "Like Steiner's, Shahn's influence on Evans was considerable, although his character and personality - energetic, fearless and principled - probably had a greater impact than his art. Épater l'avant-garde. While often portrayed as a neutral documentarian of the American scene, Evans in fact intended to offend not only the polite Victorian sensibilities of people like his parents but also the 'smuggly rich,' the pretentious scene-makers of the art world, do-gooders of the Communist crowd, and any other identifiable group of betes noires. In all of those circles Evans the man moved quite comfortably, but with a residue of free-floating negativitity, the uniquely subdued, dispassionate tone (and some might argue the chilling effect) of his photographs came from this sustained and critical refusal to join," Eklund maintained.

"Evans seized upon and made his own this oscillation between showing and withholding meaning, the result being that his own presense within the work remains unlocatable, fugitive," Eklund wrote.

Evans went on a yacht trip to the South Seas in 1932, the same year that his photographs were shown at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York. Around this time, Evans became interested in films and making them. His friend Kirstein was then the film critic for Arts Weekly and they believed that "poetry could be wrought from the sequencing of images," according to Eklund. The next year, Evans went with Carleton Beals to Cuba to produce a book entitled "The Crime of Cuba," where he extended his visit a month on a loan from Ernest Hemingway, a "drinking companion." Some of his Depression photographs were shown at the Workers Film and Photo League and Evans was not happy that the league included his name in the promotion of the show.

"Evan's desire to remain apolitical in his work was accompanied by a wariness of being too closely linked with his more politically active friends and branded a 'subversive.' While his politics were left of center, it would be a mistake to view Evan's friendships and alliances of the time as evidence of strong politicial commitment. He was cynical about all political ideals," Eklund observed.

Indeed, much of his work manifests a curious ambiguity.

Stark, poetic images of a way of life and a time in America far-removed from the expedient whirl of the twenty-first century cram the gallery walls at the Metropolitan. It is impressive for a viewer to witness how modern his work still looks and feels, although one might wish the pictures had been hung higher for easier viewing when the galleries are crowded.

The images of white clapboard churches, Southern street scenes, the Burroughs family, New York City skyscrapers, billboards, and subway passengers span almost half a century and culminate in the utterly modern "Sign Detail" polaroids taken in 1973-74. The first plate in the catalogue, "Self-Portraits, Juan-les-Pins, France," is dated 1927 and consists of four separate shadow silhouettes. Visual poetry, clearly and articulately expressed, often in severely pristine and deeply intelligent fashion, was present at the outset of Evans photographic journey into American life and culture.

There is nothing cloying or apologetic about his handling of the portraits of the Alabama tenant farmers, their meager, worn possessions and clothing, or their dwellings, nor is there even a hint of apology in Allie, or her handsome husband Floyd’s, straight-forward gaze back. Look all you want, this is the way it is, they seem to say.

Evans had the knack of choosing subjects who said what he wanted to say and "the way it was" mattered to Evans, without embellishment, artful arrangements, or excessive emotion. The dainty print on Allie’s dress and the fine, horizontal grain on the wood-siding behind her are the perfect foil for her pale, taught skin drawn like a mask over her face. There is no spare flesh on her bones, overwork has taken care of that, and she was the essence of what James Agee took thousands of serious and earnest words to say in "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men."

"Alabama Farm Interior"

"Alabama Farm Interior (Fields Family Cabin), 1936

Evans's photographs in "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" are outstanding and among the most important and influential of all his images. They are merciless and unsentimental. He gets to the guts of the Fields family via the simplest of subjects –their cutlery, stuck hurriedly into a makeshift ‘rack’ nailed onto the cabin siding, "Alabama Farm Interior (Fields Family Cabin), 1936, shown above, is a stunning, memorable image.

However distanced Evans's images are, they manage to remain intensely personal. Questions pour into the mind, although the beauty of the image is never in question. In "Negro Barber Shop Interior, Atlanta," 1936, there is more than a hint of social commentary. In "West Virginia Living Room," 1935, there is pathos and time just hanging like a stone around the young boy’s neck. And still the images are lyrical in an American way, free of artifice, analytical, and powerfully simple. They established Evans as one of the most famous documentary photographers of the 30’s and 40’s.

Words and stories are implied in many of his images, and it comes as no surprise to discover that Evans was a "pathological bibliophile" in his youth and an aspiring writer before he became a photographer. He was influenced by the Irish writer George Moore ("Confessions of a Young Man," 1888), and the American critic and journalist H. L. Mencken, who provided literary fodder for would-be rebels; Moore idolized Beaudelaire and Flaubert, and Mencken, who wrote for the literary magazine "Smartset," was a "wellspring of an acerbic assault on the genteel tradition" according to the comprehensive museum catalogue, ["Walker Evans," Maria Morris Hambourg, Jeff L. Rosenheim, Douglas Eklund, Mia Fineman, 2000, The Metropolitan Museum of Art in association with Princeton University Press, pp. 332, 365 illustrations including 141 duotone plates and 53 color plates, $65, hard-cover, $45 soft-cover.]

Contradiction and creativity often co-exist, and despite his anti-Bourgeois sentiments, Menken had a "secret love of aristocrats, dandies, and other things British", which Evans shared. He grew up in the north Chicago suburb of Kenilworth, Illinois, which was modeled after a village in Warwickshire, England; "It was a little suburban town very restricted, all the same kind of people. So everyone in the school was good…it was very English…sort of a Babes in Toyland fairyland," recalled Evans. His father was a successful advertising executive and a "professional hack writer" and Mrs. Evans had two servants but a rented Arts and Crafts style house. It was small compared with some of the mansions in grander styles which lined the avenues in Kenilworth, and the small lot lay right by the railway tracks to Chicago, barely visible in the distance. Walker adored trains and his father, and ritually met his father's train home from work every evening. Images of railway lines, stations, sidings and signs appear repeatedly in his work, such as "Part of Phillipsburg, New Jersey," 1935, and "Railroad Station, Edwards, Mississippi]," 1936.

"Mississippi Town Negro Quarter"

"Mississippi Town Negro Quarter," 1936

Evans's love of small towns is evident in numerous images; a quiet gentility, minus the fairytale, seeps into "Main Street of County Seat, Alabama," 1936, "Street Scene, Vicksburg, Mississippi", 1936, and "Main Street in Pennsylvania Town", 1935. There is a fascination with dignity and gentility in much of his work which reflect back to his childhood where the Evans’ were almost the Jones’, but not quite. They lived in a picture-perfect suburban dream town, but in a small house by the tracks.

Evans had to break away from the stifling demands of bourgeois life to realize his creative vision. He had a genius for photographing people and places who reflected the stories he wanted to tell. His work has a literary quality which goes back to his awakening to literature as a young boy: "I formed my literary taste because of Mrs. Phelps, who used to read to us…Oh, she was a wonderful woman…With love and intelligence, love of people and children, and intelligence, and knowledge and love of literature she just opened us up to it without our knowing it," Evans recalled. The riveting image of young Squeekie Burroughs covered with a flour sack to ward off flies, "Squeekie Burroughs Asleep," 1936, and others such as "Girl in Fulton Street, New York," 1929, and "Parked Car, Small Town Main Street," 1932, leave the viewer hungry for more information. Did Squeekie have a doctor? A dentist?

"Street Scene, New York"

"Street Scene, New York," 1928

Evans had a fascination with the newness of New York lashing up against and devouring the old city of Walt Whitman and Herman Melville; construction was everywhere, and Evans captured the rapidly changing Manhattan skyline from the Brooklyn Bridge, revelling in the boundless energy and modernity that epitomize New York, then as now. "Wall Street Windows," 1928-30, and "Signs, New York," 1928-30, demonstrate his unflinching eye "locking on" to a spontaneous, streetscape composition.

In his catalogue essay, Eklund observed that in the early part of his career, Evans "had proven that he could make stylish, handsome, funny, poignant, and terrifying pictures, but his approach was scattershot: he had yet to identify a coherent theme, tradition, or epic metaphor...." The "aerial" photograph of pedestrians at a street corner, shown above, is a superb and stylish composition.

"Woman, Fulton Street, New York"

"Woman, Fulton Street, New York," 1929

His "Woman, Fulton Street, New York," shown above, is so "now" that it is reassuring to read the date, 1929. It is interesting to note that this picture is reproduced in the catalogue but not included in the exhibition. Another picture of the same woman at the same location but without the foreground figures is shown in the exhibition as Plate 14, "Girl in Fulton Street, New York," 1929. The pictures were obviously taken within seconds as the woman has the same expression and pose but is shown without obstruction and much of the overhanging sign is not shown. The image above, the better one, is a classic, spontaneous New York image and a masterpiece, and a prelude to his interesting series known as "The Subway Portraits," shot clandestinely from under Evan’s coat with a 35-millimeter Contax. "No viewing…sort of done from the belly," Evans explained. Evidence of his fascination with people, his photographs turned out pretty well for such nonchalance, showing his mastery of technique, without a flash and "shooting blind," in his own words, but more importantly it was a revolutionary concept in the context of his time, with the towering artistic lights of Steichen and Steiglitz beaming down on him.

"Subway Passengers, New York"

"[Subway Passengers, New York]," 1938

Many of the Subway images are not technically perfect, but some, such as "[Subway Passengers, New York]," 1938, shown above, are fabulous.

Evans's covert snapshots of subway riders, Chicago shoppers, Detroit laborers have the same hovering quality, eagle-eyed, awaiting his moment to strike, distanced from his subjects who go about their business unaware of his pursuit of the unstudied image. The billboards, buildings, churches and signs are transformed into man-made icons; he was never drawn to nature photography, which bored him. His lens sought man and the "man made" artifacts of his time, however imperfect or ordinary, like the picture postcards he had collected all his life, of main streets, railway depots and trolleys; "…Can you imagine anything more?…A conglomeration of hideous things that come together by casting a spell of – I couldn’t call it beauty – but of a certain kind of silent poetry…"

Evan’s evolution within the photographic history of his time is well articulated in "The New Vision, Photography Between The Wars," (The Ford Motor Company Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art), published by the Museum. This generous corporate gift of photographs to the Metropolitan places Evans amongst his peers, awesome talents, and the crosscurrents and innovations, which they shared. The list reads as a Who’s Who of photography’s giants – Steiglitz, Steichen, Strand, Man Ray, Moholy-Nagy, Weston, Lewis Hines, Abbott – with Evans holding his own amongst them.

It is interesting to note that the catalogue's cover is a closely cropped detail of "Shop Front, New Orleans," 1935, that radically changes the nature of the picture by concentrating on the wild, zebra-like striping of the barbershop but cutting away the decorative wrought-iron balcony above it, and the marvelous front tip of a great car with huge headlights. The catalogue's cover is impressive, but really violates the integrity of Evans's vision. Another photograph of an American Legionaire is also substantially cropped in the print in the exhibition.

The museum's bookshop has a $22 book that has many of the photographs Evans took for the Farmers Security Administration and also a $75 book on him that includes many fine photographs not included in the exhibition.

"Tin Relic"

"Tin Relic," 1930

While most of his subject matter was architecture and people, Evans would also develop a fascination for signs and the exhibition includes many that he collected. He also took a few fine close-ups of shredded signs and disrupted facades such as the wonderful "Tin Relic," 1930, shown above. Evans would describe this as "a very painterly photograph," adding "More so than I would like. I mean, than I care to admit. There's Braque and Gris both in that…the School of Paris [see The City Review article on the "Painters of Paris" exhibition in 2000 at the Metropolitan] painting meant a great deal to me."

Evans's disenchantment with many of the established titans of the medium was more of a gut feeling than a theoretian's anthem. Evans was neither a revolutionary, nor an anti-hero. He suffered long to develop a style, but his work ultimately was not about style, but clarity and documentation. The exhibition does not really do Evans justice as several of his best photographs are not included, although they are available in some of the many books on Evans available in the museum's bookstore.

There is certainly enough, however, in the exhibition to entrance and excite. While his sharecropper and subway pictures are the most famous, the Fulton Street woman and the tin relic and urban images such as his excellent "View of Ossining, New York," 1930, and "Main Street, Saratoga Springs, New York," 1931, demonstate with great power his talent, a talent that perhaps did not rise to the highest levels of the early titans of the art form that he was for a while very critical of, but a talent that often grabs and takes hold of the viewer's imagination and does not leave.

While some might initially find much of Evans's work too austere, dry and "astringent," as one critic observed, there is too much humanity, too much wonderfully precise perception, to ignore and that is a great achievement.

By the 1960’s the rebellious student who had spent most of his youth avoiding being "taught,’ was awarded an honorary degree from Williams College and hesitantly accepted an offer to teach at the prestigious Yale School of Art, where he told students that art could not be taught, even at Yale. Instead he encouraged them to freely absorb what they needed and reject what they didn’t - his own credo – and described his classes on photography as "non-stop bull sessions about the art of seeing." Alston Purvis, a graphic art student, recalled that Evans "seemed to hover about the subject like a circling hawk."


Click here to get information on the WMHT video on Walker Evans with an original score by David Amram

Click here to purchase the hardcover museum exhibition catalogue for 30 percent off its $65 list price from

Click here to purchase the 1989 reissue softcover edition of "Let Us Now Praise Famouse Men: Three Tenant Families," with a long introduction by John Hersey, at 20 percent off list price from

Click here to purchase James R. Mellow's 1999 biography of Walker Evans at 30 percent off its $40 list price from

Click here to see review by Andrew Long of Mellow's book in

See The Metropolitan Museum's website on the exhibition that includes 26 thumbnail pictures that can be expanded into larger ones at

See The Walker Evans Project that includes many images and information on "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" and its commission by the Farm Security Administration at

See the Walker Evans material at the Masters of Photography website at or

Click here for information on "Walker Evans: Signs," by Andrei Codrescu, published by the J. Paul Getty Museum in 1998 for $19.95

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