In 1935 the Farm Security Administration employed a group of photographers to document America’s crippling Depression. Asked to ‘show America to Americans’, the group turned their cameras on the poor and travelled through the pitiable farming regions of the Dust Bowl and the South, capturing the steady trail of migrants and displaced tenant farmers heading for California. One of the photographers was 32-year-old Walker Evans, and the crystal-clear realism of his images earned him the first solo photography exhibition ever to be held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1938.
Born in St Louis into an affluent family, Evans had originally wanted to be a writer; it was while living with a bohemian literary crowd in New York in the late 1920s that he began taking photographs. His early images had a highly aestheticized style, influenced by European modernism. It was only when America became his subject matter that he revealed an extraordinary ability to convey the weight of the country’s history with the nuance of a poet, creating a visual catalogue of modern America in the making.
Evans was a master of self-reinvention. Having been championed as the progenitor of the American documentary style he then pioneered American vernacular landscape, photographing billboards, road signs, crossroads and civic buildings. Between 1938 and 1941 he embraced covert surveillance, publishing a remarkable series of portraits taken surreptitiously in the New York City subway. ‘Even more than in lone bedrooms (where there are mirrors), people’s faces are in naked repose down in the subway,’ he said.
Throughout his life he continued to push the boundaries of what photography could be, no more so than in the last years of his life, when he began using a Polaroid camera. Having received a grant from the Mark Rothko Foundation, he broke new territory with a series of instant prints that encapsulated his spare, direct poetry.
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