Walker Evans was one of the most influential artists of the 20th century. Through this lesson, you will learn about his background and explore how his photographs helped to shape American history and memory of the early-to-mid 20th century.
Who Was Walker Evans?
When you think about the Great Depression and Dust Bowl eras of United States history, what images come to mind? You likely think of the photographs of enormous dust clouds moving across the Midwestern plains and images of modestly dressed, shoeless children gathered around shotgun-style houses. Whatever images come to your mind when you think about this era, you probably didn’t know that they are in large part due to Walker Evans.Walker Evans was an American photographer whose work produced during the first half of the 20th century has helped to shape Americans’ understanding of the effects of the Depression and the Dust Bowl on poor and working-class farmers during that time. Evans was one of several photographers hired by the government to document the economic plight of rural Americans and the progress being made during this time. Evans’ photographs have become some of the most influential and widely recognized of the 20th century.
Evans was born into an affluent St. Louis family in 1903.
The son of an advertising executive, Evans’ family moved several times during his first decade, before he was sent to a number of different boarding schools, eventually graduating from Phillips Academy in 1922. Upon graduation, Evans attended Williams College in western Massachusetts with the intention of studying French literature, though he dropped out after one year. He moved to New York City and worked at various jobs for three years before deciding to move to Paris.
Returning from France in 1927, Evans took a job as a clerk on Wall Street in order to support himself while attempting to establish a career as a writer. Despite his passion for literature, it was his interest in photography that would make him a widely recognized name in the art world, and eventually beyond.Evans spent nearly a decade building a name for himself in the growing world of photography, initially with his stylized and aesthetically appealing landscape and architectural photos. By the mid-1930s, however, he began to develop a deep interest in a more realistic style in which the everyday lives and faces around him became his inspiration. This shift in style is due in part to the Evans’ interest in French photographer Eugene Atget, whose late 19th and early 20th-century photography influenced Evans’ use of ordinary environments and stark contrasts.
By 1935 the effects of the Dust Bowl had taken a serious toll on Midwestern farmers and their families who were unable to farm and couldn’t find work elsewhere. As part of his New Deal, President Roosevelt established the Resettlement Administration (RA), which was intended to help these families relocate and rebuild their lives.
While the primary goal of the RA was indeed to help rural farmers and their families, the government hoped these types of programs would boost morale and hired a number of photographers to document the program. Between 1935 and 1937, Evans worked in and around government established resettlement communities in Virginia and Pennsylvania. It was in these communities that some of Walker Evans’ most famous photographs emerged.
Though his task was to document the governmental efforts to help migrant farmers, he was more interested in capturing the lives and cultures of those living in the settlements.Though they are iconic and very familiar to us now, Walker Evans’ images of the resettlement communities were in many ways unlike anything that the public had seen before. These images were nothing like the landscape and stylized photos that Americans were used to at the time; rather, they presented Americans with a kind of plain honesty that many found relatable. Moreover, Evans’ images captured the effects of Dust Bowl and the sentiment of the 1930s by humanizing his subjects.
Despite the social and political commentary implicit in his photographs, it’s worth noting that Evans’ motivations may not have been as pure and just as they appear. Having been born into a wealthy family and raised among the Northeastern elite, Walker Evans knew little about the world that he photographed. Unlike many people of early 20th century, poverty was an abstract concept or visual aesthetic that gave many of his photos a sense of nostalgia, or sentimental yearning for the past.
Walker Evans was an American photographer who became a major influence on 20th century photography. Initially employed by the Resettlement Administration, Evans’ Depression era and Dust Bowl images have come to shape our understanding of this period in American history. These images, collected in a publication titled American Photographs, established the photographer as one of the most influential artists of the 20th century. Nevertheless, Evans’ images of Americana convey a sense of nostalgia that suggests a considerable distance between the photographer and his subjects.