Walker Evans

By Michael Torosian

Azure, May/June 2000

The American photographer Walker Evans was born in 1903 and reached his artistic maturity during the Great Depression. He photographed America, as he put it, like an “anthropologist, sociologist, and historian,” producing the definitive portrait of his time. In his later years he was lionized. The cultural influence and artistic impact of his work compelled John Szarkowski to write, “It is difficult to know now with certainty whether Evans recorded the America of his youth, or invented it.”

In anticipation of the centennial of Evans’ birth, an abundance of books – memoirs, biographies and pictorial volumes – have recently been published. The latest, Walker Evans, is a companion to the exhibition currently on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. What distinguishes this book from all the rest, is the authors’ unprecedented access to the Walker Evans Archive, acquired by the Met in 1994. This mother lode of letters and diaries is a rich resource chronicling Evans’ artistic life and the evolution of his creative consciousness.

The youthful Evans is depicted as a laconic prodigy, immersed in literature, and devoted, in Beaudelaire’s terms, to the “cultivation of utter detachment.” It seems incongruous that an intellectual “dandy” living the expatriate adventure in 1920s Paris should become the photographer of dust-bowl America, but chief curator Maria Morris Hambourg and her co-authors deftly illuminate Evans’ journey. His creative leap, they contend, was his ability to assimilate rich and diverse influences into his “own American idiom”, and the constant in his work, throughout a career of more than forty years, was in his rigorous clarity and honesty.

Evans’ virtuosity is honoured in a portfolio of nearly 200 photographs. The prime of his working life is well documented with selections from his landmark books, American Photographs, Many Are Called, and his legendary collaboration with James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. These are images of such lucidity that they have indelibly shaped the syntax of the medium.

In a lecture toward the end of his life, Walker Evans defined his photography as “lyric documentary,” as co-author Mia Fineman puts it, “a style of picture making that is straitforward, factual, and descriptive, yet imbued with subtle grace and depth of meaning.” These words could fairly be used to appraise this tribute to a photographer celebrated as the poet laureate of the documentary style.

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