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Walker Evans

“Whether he is an artist or not, the photographer is a joyous sensualist, for the simple reason that the eye traffics in feelings, not in thoughts.” – Walker Evans

The photographs collected tn his most famous book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941) were taken on commission for the Farm Security Administration (FSA), a division of the US Department of Agriculture interested in obtaining an impression of the lives of the rural population, especially in the Deep South. Evans focused on farmers and their families—especially children—the poor furnishings of their dwellings and their outward appearance, the fields and meager harvests. His lapidary stocktaking had nothing of the social reform agenda about it. Still lifes with family photographs and bric-a-brac on board walls, a white-sheeted bed, interiors with carefully arranged household goods, were masterpieces of the genre, taking the objective style of the 1920s and 1930s to a culmination. Not surprisingly, Evans's early pictures of show windows and interiors in New York and buildings in "old New England" occasionally recall the unpretentious realism of a Eugene Atget.

In 1938, Evans began photographing passengers in the New York subway with a concealed lens. The resulting portraits, of which the sitters were oblivious, were of a quite unprecedented kind: people lost in thought, unaware of being observed, their gazes empty, waiting without expectation. Out of discretion, Evans did not publish a selection of these images until 1966, under the title Many Are Called. The book represented street photography of a special kind, a panorama of anonymity and human alienation—an American counterpart to the "humanistic" photography of a Doisneau, Ronis, or Cartier-Bresson, whose insouciant charm glossed over the fact that we are all, ultimately, alone. In his early Evans made a name for himself at Fortune magazine, initially as a photographer, later with increasing editorial responsibility. During these 12 years emerged several series, including one of tools in sharp focus (Auger Drill Bit with a Flared Screwdriver End, 1955), and a color series on hydrants, street posts, and traffic and information signs entitled Street Furniture: expression of a prosaic realism far from all symbolic metaphor. Evans cautioned against the temptations of color photography, saying that "Many photographers are apt to confuse color with noise." Still, this did not prevent him from buying a Polaroid camera a year before his death ("nobody should touch a Polaroid until he's over sixty"), with which in one great splurge he shot over 2,650 more pictures, of houses and sheds, interiors, people—and, of course, signs.

Excerpt taken from 50 Photographers You Should Know by Peter Stepan

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