The early photographs of Walker Evans
Walker Evans started taking photographs in a now standard way: making snapshots. Unlike most photographers that preceded him in history, the form was now established and not at all arcane. Roll film cameras were easily available to anyone who had the means.
He would have been around 21 at the time, and it appears that he started right before his first trip to Paris.
I had a vest-pocket camera [in Paris] and I still have about three snapshots I made, and they’re quite characteristic. They’re documentary scenes.
Taped interview, 2/1/73
Some of the photographs were observations of street life, and several critics have latched onto these as early examples of American street photography. In retrospect, I don’t see them as all that innovative. They fit more into the experimental category, similar to Alexander Rodechenko’s work, with distinct tinges of the early photojournalists like Kertez and Bresson. You can see the cross-currents of the time, evidenced from the beginning represented by these shots and the work he did upon returning to New York.
His European snapshots are nothing to be ashamed of
After photographing in New York from 1928-9, Evans was finally convinced by a neighbor to take his portfolio to show to Alfred Steiglitz, the originator of the seminal photo publication Camera Work, in his declining years. Stieglitz gave patronizingly gratuitous comments regarding Evans photographs, and I agree with Belinda Rathbone’s observation that “Steiglitz probably thought of them as tentative imitations of the European avante-garde or, worse the technically uneven attempts of an amateur.
Steiglitz, as Rathbone comments, probably was important as a defining figure in determining just who Walker Evans wasn’t. Evans though Steiglitz was “egotistical and cultish.” He provided the perfect example of an establishment to rebel against.
Steiglitz produced very few photographs with the hard modernist edge. Steerage, displayed on the right, is probably the only thing even close to the core of Modernist aesthetics. Steiglitz was really more a product of the Victorian age, and though he was instrumental in bringing Modern painting to America, he was not a great example of modernist thinking.
However, there were several people in his circle that no doubt were an influence on Evans. Paul Strand was a person that he looked up to, and I suspect that Strand’s friend Charles Sheeler also influenced the early work by Evans.
I came across the picture of Strand’s blind woman and that really bowled me over. But I’d already been in that, and wanted to do that. That’s a very powerful picture. I saw it in the New York Public Library files of Camera Work. That’s the stuff, that’s the thing to do. Now it seems automatic even, but it was quite a powerful picture. It charged me up.
Katz/Evans interview, 6/28/29
Most of Evans early work was later rejected, as he took the directness of Strand’s early photographs to new extremes
Some of them are romantic in a way that I would repudiate now. Even some of the Brooklyn Bridge things — I wouldn’t photograph them that way now. I developed a much straighter technique later on. But in 1928,’29, and ’30 I was apt to do something I now consider romantic and reject. I hadn’t learned to be more straight about things . . .
But there are some really shining moments from that early period, particularly those that seem to be “under the influence of Strand.” This photograph, in particular, has had a deep influence on me, in a way probably not unlike the influence of Strand on Evans.
Sheeler’s influence was perhaps a bit more apparent in Evan’s architectural photographs, and comparing his factory photographs with Evan’s work of the same time shows that Evans’ big breakthrough was yet to come. Ultimately, he rejected this too. As Gilles Mora relates:
This generation’s desire for change, expressed in their experimental use of photography, was derived from Europe. Evans quickly learned, for example, about German New Objectivity from mixing with German artists such as his friends Hans Skolle and Paul Grotz. He hailed the effective destruction of romantic art in the work of German photographers. But he also suspected that behind the attempt at a plastic interpretation of reality that Laszlo Moholy-Nagy was working on at the Bauhaus lay a method that was rapidly hardening into a fixed formalism, which, he wrote, “has already run out of steam.”