Today is the birthday of Walker Evans, the American photographer most well known for his work documenting poverty in during the Great Depression. Evans was born in 1903 in Missouri and had a wealthy upbringing. He studied French at Williams College for one year and dropped out, went to France, came back, and became friends with writers John Cheever and Hart Crane. He would later go on to work alongside writers and said that one of his goals was to take “literate” pictures.
Walker Evans got his start taking pictures for ad campaigns for FDR’s New Deal Programs. He photographed the coal country of Pennsylvania and West Virginia for the Resettlement Administration, which helped relocate struggling families to government-planned communities. The RA was later folded into the Farm Security Administration, and Evans worked for their campaign in the South. Unlike Dorothea Lange — whose photograph “Migrant Mother” is the most iconic image of the Dust Bowl — Evans avoided more emotionally evocative portraits, and preferred to photograph his subjects looking right into the camera. One critic wrote of his work: “The images, unveiled by sentimentality, are possessed by the photographer’s puritanical objectivity mixed with an edge of pessimism.”
In 1936, he and James Agee went to Hale County, Alabama, on a Fortune magazine assignment that was never published. But Agee’s writing about the area and the photographs Evans took were published in the 1941 book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. The book told the stories of three tenant families as recounted by Agee, and it included 64 pages of Evans’ photos. The New York Public Library recognized it as one of the most influential books of the 20th century.
Evans said that the project was a success because of James Agee’s ability to connect with his subjects. He said: “[P]art of a photographer’s gift should be with people. You can do some wonderful work if you know how to make people understand what you’re doing and feel all right about it, and you can do terrible work if you put them on the defense, which they all are at the beginning. You’ve got to take them off their defensive attitude and make them participate.”
He objected to being seen as a political photographer and said that he was only ever driven to make interesting art. In an interview toward the end of his life, he said: “[A]lmost all good artists are being worked through with forces that they’re not quite aware of. They are transmitters of sensitivities that they’re not aware of having, of forces that are in the air at the time. I’ve done a lot of things that I’m surprised at now which show a lot of knowledge that I didn’t have or knew I had. I can now learn something from my own pictures.”