Walker Evans

The Getty Museum Collection by Philip Greenspun; created 1998

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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. A single 8x7 print was sold by Christie's for $100,000 in 2017.