Tuesday, November 3, 2009


Today is the birthday of the photographer Walker Evans, born in St. Louis in 1903. His father abandoned the family when he was 15, and it was around this time that Walker picked up his first camera. It was a Kodak Brownie. He took it around Toledo, everywhere he went, taking pictures of people unaware, "like a spy" is how he later described it. He spent a year in Paris, thought about being a painter, then settled in New York among the Bohemians. His first published photographs were of the Brooklyn Bridge. They appeared in a 1930 book of poems by Hart Crane. Evans was 27. Most of his photography was of people, though, people sitting on stoops, people working, people sitting on subways who didn't know they were having their picture taken. He took pictures of working men's bedrooms and empty houses.

In 1935 he embarked on a tour of the South, paid for by FDR's Farm Security Administration. Until this time poverty was a private matter, something that wasn't reported in newspapers, wasn't measured, certainly wasn't shown. The photographs appeared in a book accompanied by a text written by James Agee. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men wasn't about famous men at all, but about invisible men––poor men, women and children. Most didn't like having their pictures taken, some were too worn down to protest. Viewers took umbrage, but it brought poverty into the open where people felt obliged to do something about it. For a while anyway. After the Depression was over, poverty went back in the back of the closet. After World War II, Walker Evans spent twenty years taking pictures for Fortune magazine, and he and his wife moved to Connecticut. He appears five times in A Book of Ages.

(Other photographers appear in the book too: Henri Cartier-Bresson, Ansel Adams, Mathew Brady, Louis Lumiére, Alfred Stieglitz, Alberto Korda, Lewis Carroll, Annie Lebowitz, Abraham Zapruder among them.)

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