Walker Evans' Eye on the City


December 18, 2017

Walker Evans, “Labor Anonymous,” Fortune 34, no. 5, November 1946.

Walker Evans, “Labor Anonymous,” Fortune 34, no. 5, November 1946.

As a photographer for the Farm Security Administration in the 1930s, Walker Evans created some of the most memorable images of the Great Depression. His portraits of tenant farmers and small towns in the southern United States are career defining. Less known but no less significant is Evans’s work as a long-time New Yorker and an international traveler, who photographed urban environments.

Walker Evans, a major retrospective on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) through February 4, draws several comparisons between Evans and Eugène Atget (1857–1927), a French photographer who was similarly obsessed with everyday objects, scenes, and people — what the exhibition refers to as “the vernacular.” The artists’ shared interests and divergences are instructive in understanding urban photography’s place in Evans’s work.

Often with an air of nostalgia, Atget documented Paris as it changed under the weight of modernity. While cities feature prominently in Evans’s earliest photographs from the late 1920s, but these works more closely resemble Bauhaus-inspired avant-garde photography. They are detached, not wistful.

Evans’s 1929 photograph of the Brooklyn Bridge depicts a black monolith from a low angle, emphasizing form and light rather than some vernacular truth about the structure. Likewise, “Wall Street Windows” (1928) fixates on the repetition of pairs of windows on a building as seen through an obstructing stairwell.

By 1930 at the latest, Evans learned about Atget, and a perceptible shift occurred in the young American’s work. Almost immediately, the preoccupation with daily life and its signifiers unseats an emphasis on impersonal forms. Most noticeable is the proliferation of signage — small signs, billboards, electric signs, storefronts — a subject Evans was so fascinated with that he sometimes stole signs after photographing them.

Though Evans’s inclination towards advertising is stronger than Atget’s, the influence is undeniable. In fact, Evans’s 1933 photograph of a Havana restaurant’s storefront seems to directly reference Atget’s “122, Boulevard de la Villette” (1924-25), which pictures a barbershop’s facade at nearly the exact same angle (only mirrored). Evans’s work from this period, however, is less directed by nostalgia for a changing world than by an earnest interest in exploring those changes.

Other works by Evans, even much later in his career, appear as direct homages to Atget. For example, Atget made dozens of photographs of Parisian shop window displays. Evans’s “Dress” (1963) crops close in on an ordinary display of boots, socks, and denim pants, emphasizing the prices as much as the objects for sale. Evans seems to relish the contemporariness of the prices and the fashion. And though the restaurant facade feels like imitation, “Dress” relies on an approach similar to Atget’s to document an entirely different world.

One of the most significant differences between the two artists is the human subject. Though Atget sometimes photographed people, his landscapes are often vacant. At times, Atget’s Paris seems like the set of a Twilight Zoneepisode in which the city is inhabited only by mannequins. The cities Evans photographed were bustling.

In November 1946, Fortune magazine published a two-page spread with 11 of Evans’s photographs of pedestrians in Detroit under the title “Labor Anonymous.” Evans photographed passersby from a low camera angle the created the impression that each pedestrian was briskly walking by. In addition to a copy of the magazine, SFMOMA exhibits several photographs from the series that did not make it into print. In the published images, only one of the twelve individuals visibly acknowledges Evans’ presence. The men in these photographs smoke their pipes, cigars, and cigarettes with stoicism and élan.

The unpublished photographs tell a different story. In one photograph, a young woman averts her eyes and fidgets with her hands while her companion looks at the camera with slight amusement. In others, subjects appear to shoot Evans stern looks. Together, these illustrate a less polished, less idolized Detroit. There is more diversity in race, gender, and age; women walk unescorted by men, and the photographer is challenged. 

Curatorial text explains that, except in rare cases, the people Evans photographed “were well aware of his camera and fully participated in the construction of their images.” But as seen in Detroit, he often eschewed consent and collected images of people as if they were urban ornaments, like the roadside signs that so fascinated him.

Between 1938 and 1941, Evans took dozens of photographs of people on the New York subway with a hidden camera. These subjects didn’t perform for the camera — because they don’t know it is there — but they might have performed for their fellow passengers. Regular transit-riders will recognize awkward attempts to avoid eye contact, posturing, intentional distractions, and even a few passengers who look directly at Evans.

One striking photograph from the subway series is of a woman who is acutely aware of the photographer (but not his camera). Her eyes are open wide, and her dark clothes in the low-light environment create the effect of a floating head, as she inadvertently looks directly at the camera. 

Though these are ethically questionable works, they are fascinating historical documents of Evans’ time. The people — and their clothing, their facial expressions, their mannerisms — give definition to the built environment and vice versa. For the most part, Atget pictured Paris without Parisians, but for Evans, the vernacular of a city could not be separated from its inhabitants.