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Walker Evans

The Getty Museum Collection by Philip Greenspun, 1998

Walker Evans: The Getty Museum Collection by Judith Keller, 1995 Getty. ISBN 0-89236-317-7. 410 pages. You can order this book from amazon.com .

Walker Evans (1903-1975) started photographing New York City in 1927, recording its patterns and people during the day and working as a clerk on Wall Street at night. Eugene Atget, whose great life work was the photographing of Paris, died the same year and, if you want to make a hit at Art Crit cocktail parties, it is worth pointing out that Evans picked up Atget's torch to some extent.

By 1935, Evans had a grander vision of documenting "American life": "What do I want to do? I know now is the time for picture books. .. Something perhaps smaller. Toledo, Ohio, maybe. Then I'm not sure a book of photos should be identified locally. American city is what I'm after... People, all classes, surrounded by bunches of the new down-and-out. Automobiles and the automobile landscape. Architecture, American urban taste, commerce, small scale, large scale, the city street atmosphere, the street smell, the hateful stuff, women's clubs, fake culture, bad education, religion in decay..."

Evans got the Federal Government to pay for most of this work, which, in October 1938, formed the basis of the first ever one-man show of photography at the Museum of Modern Art. That year, Evans began to photograph people in the New York City subway. He strapped a Contax 35mm camera to his chest, concealed it underneath a coat, and operated the shutter with a release running down his sleeve. These were published in 1966 as Many are Called.

During World Word II, Walker Evans chronicled workers and industry for big magazines then became a staff photographer at Fortune in 1945, a position he held for 20 years before being sucked into Academia. Even if you aren't impressed by his photographs, there is something grand about a college dropout becoming a Yale professor.

If that sounds like a terribly gray portrait of Evans's life, it is about as much as you're going to get from this enormous book. You won't hear about the second marriage... to a woman half his age. The 1,138 duotones and 31 color photos are inspiring, of course, but the text is bland and disjointed. There must be a problem fundamental to writing a book about a photographer where the focus is "pictures that Museum X happens to own," even when Museum X owns 1,169. This problem is most apparent when, for each picture, you learn the dimensions in centimeters of the print the Getty Museum happens to own, the dimension again in inches, any pencil marks that were made on the front or back, whether it was/is mounted, and a bunch of catalog numbers. But you never learn what kind of camera or film was used.

[Note: if you do want to learn something about Walker Evans the man, check out this biography by Belinda Rathbone .]

What I like about Walker Evans, and what I like to think resulted in his being adopted by Yale, was how articulate he was about photography. To that end, I'm compiling a list here of my favorite quotes:

"Stare. It is the way to educate your eye, and more. Stare, pry, listen eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long."

"With the camera, it's all or nothing. You either get what you're after at once, or what you do has to be worthless. I don't think the essence of photography has the hand in it so much. The essence is done very quietly with a flash of the mind, and with a machine. I think too that photography is editing, editing after the taking. After knowing what to take, you have to do the editing."


In the last decade of his life, Walker Evans sold his entire collection of prints and negs for $150,000. You can see how that value has changed by looking at the prints that banning associates has for sale.

Four of his Mangrove Coast photos are visible at the Southeast Museum of Photography.

Article created 1998

Readers' Comments

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Steven Mertens , May 19, 1998; 01:36 P.M.

People who lives by their emotional feelings and act or react in the same way are the greatest artist . Check that out!!!


William Hahn , January 17, 2000; 04:23 P.M.

There is a new biography of Walker Evans by the late James Mellow. There is a review at:


(I don't know how long that site will be active.)

Be forewarned that Mellow died before finishing the book so that last 25 years of Evans' life aren't really covered (except for a sketchy outline of major events).

Photo.net regulars will be amused by Evans' description of his first meeting with Stieglitz....

Bill Tyler , January 21, 2000; 05:07 P.M.

I've read the Evans biography by Mellow. IMHO, Mellow doesn't have a clue about photography, and therefore has written a very disappointing biography. If this were my first exposure to Evans, I'd come away without any concept of why he was interesting or important. The section that epitomizes Mellow's cluelessness is his description of the famous Evans photo of Allie Mae Burroughs. Mellow describes it as being made in harsh noonday sun, and goes on to draw conclusions from that. But any photographer can see that it was made in very soft light, either heavy overcast or open shade. This is more than a simple error. It is like a biography of an astronomer, written by someone who does not know that the earth revolves around the sun. Evans is important because of his photography. Without even a rudimentary understanding of photography, it is impossible to do him justice in a biography.

Kenneth Hamma , July 26, 2000; 11:01 A.M.

Readers can also see 115 of the Evans photographs in the Getty collection online at The Getty.

Bill Jameson , April 04, 2001; 01:06 P.M.

Two other Walker Evan's books I like:

Walker Evans : The Hungry Eye by Gilles Mora, John Hill Hardcover - 336 pages (October 1993) Harry N Abrams; ISBN: 0810932598

A coffe table book to rival (I think best) the Getty Collection work.

And for some information on how Walker did it, the out of print:

Walker Evans at work : 745 photographs together with documents selected from letters, memoranda, interviews, notes / with an essay by Jerry L. Thompson. 1982 Harper and Row ISBN should be 0060111046

Well worth finding at a library/using interlibrary loan.

jason waszak , January 21, 2008; 07:43 P.M.

Hello, I don't have a comment on Walker Evans except that over the last few weeks of learning who he is, what he's done, and what he attempts to create are all amazing. I'm an actor out of Milwaukee, WI and I'm portraying Evans in an upcoming production of Steinbeck's "Mice and Men." I have reviewed and researched many bios and works of Evans, more specifically around the time of his collaboration with James Agee, but I'm very interested in finding any correspondence/letters, memos, etc. that Evans wrote. I'm attempting to really understand how he communicated, not only through his lens but through his words and what type of relationships he had with his subjects as well as James Agee. If anyone could help me I would very much appreciate it. My personal email is jawaszak@uwm.edu; you may contact me there. Thank you.

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