Walker Evans 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.
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.
Between 1934 and 1965, Evans contributed more than 400 photographs to 45 articles published in Fortune magazine. 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.
In 1973, Evans began to work with the innovative Polaroid SX-70 camera and an unlimited supply of film from its manufacturer. The virtues of the camera fit perfectly with his search for a concise yet poetic vision of the world: its instant prints were, for the infirm seventy-year-old photographer, what scissors and cut paper were for the aging Matisse.
He died on April 10, 1975 in New Haven, Connecticut