Born Walker Evans III on November 3, 1903, to Walker Evans Jr. and Jessie Beach Crane in St. Louis, Missouri. They move early to Kenilworth, a suburb of Chicago, and later to Toledo, Ohio. His father works for an advertising agency, of which Evans recalls, “Advertising was just becoming an American profession.” He attends high school in Toledo, at Loomis Chaffee in Connecticut, Mercersburg Academy in Pennsylvania, and Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts.
In September 1922, Evans enrolls at Williams College, but drops out after only one year. While there he discovers his passion for reading and decides to be a writer himself. After leaving school, Evans lives with his mother in New York, his parents having separated while he was at boarding school. Evans takes a night job at the New York Public Library, because, as he stated, “I have loved books so much – I’m almost a pathological bibliophile-and I was drawn to it.” There he meets photographer Hanns Skolle (1903-1988), with whom he later shares a studio.
At age twenty-two, Evans sails to Paris and attends school at the Sorbonne, funded by his father and chaperoned by his mother for the first few months. Paris is more of a literary adventure for him; he only dabbles in photography as a self-taught amateur.
Evans begins photographing in New York City, sharing a studio with Skolle. This is the first time he considers photography seriously.
Evans meets Lincoln Kirstein, then an undergraduate at Harvard and editor of their literary magazine Hound & Horn, who introduces Evans to an American style of photography in the work of Mathew Brady and Lewis Hine. They remain life-long friends. While living in Brooklyn, Evans photographs the Brooklyn Bridge, and abandons the skyscraper for what he calls “archaic architecture” and street photography.
He rents a house in Darien, Connecticut in the spring for a summer of gardening. Photographs local baseball games and makes studies of flowers against a plain backdrop
Three of Evans’ images illustrate Hart Crane’s poem, The Bridge, published by the Black Sun Press in Paris.
Meets Berenice Abbott, who is influential in Evans’ developing interest in photography. Kirstein helps him get his first exhibition at the Harvard Society of Contemporary Arts. Evans publishes in Architectural Review, Creative Arts, and Kirstein’s magazine Hound & Horn.
On Kirstein’s suggestion, Evans begins photographing Victorian architecture and moves to a large-format camera. He exhibits with Eugene Atget, Margaret Bourke-White, and Ralph Steiner at the John Becker Gallery in New York.
Evans sails to Tahiti as the photographer for a private yacht. He uses a small hand-held, a large-format camera, and for the first time, a movie camera. He exhibits with George Platt Lynes at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York.
Evans spends about two weeks in Havana, Cuba, taking photographs for the book The Crime of Cuba by Carleton Beals. While there, Evans meets Ernest Hemingway and they become friends. The Museum of Modern art exhibits his series of Victorian houses, which circulates to other venues until 1940. This is the first one-man photographic exhibition by a major museum.
Evans receives his first commission from Fortune magazine, a photo essay on the Communist Party. He travels on assignment to Florida where he becomes interested in the roadside scenes. His photographs from Cuba are honored by the American Institute of Graphic Arts.
Notes in the Walker Evans Archive list the subjects Evans wishes to photograph for Fortune: “people, all classes, surrounded by 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. The movies. Evidence of what people of the city read, eat, see for amusement, do for relaxation and not get it. Sex. Advertising.”
He makes approximately 500 photographs for African Negro Art while working as a staff photographer at the Museum of Modern Art. With a commission from Gifford Cochran, Evans moves to New Orleans to illustrate a book about southern antebellum architecture. Here he meets and dates artist Jane Smith Ninas; they later travel together. Evans travels much of the south and central United States. He dates many women along the way. Evans primarily photographs using his 8×10 camera.
Evans works for the government’s Resettlement Agency (RA), later know as the Farm Security Administration (FSA). Under the direction of Roy Stryker, the RA/FSA photographers (Dorothea Lange, Arthur Rothstein, and Ben Shahn, among others) were assigned to document small-town life and demonstrate how the federal government was attempting to improve the rural communities during the Depression. Together they produce over 270,000 photographs. By the end of the year he is using a Deardorff 8×10 camera provided by the government.
Evans continues to work in the south for the FSA. With writer James Agee, Evans is given a three-week leave from the FSA for a Fortune assignment that documents the lives of southern tenant farmers. They look for a single family to serve as a model about the conditions during the Depression. Due to the raw content of the images, Fortune does not publish the material and instead Agee and Evans publish a book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. These photographs ultimately define Evans’ career.
Evans’ relationship with the FSA slowly disintegrates. He photographs victims of Mississippi River flooding. His work is included in the Museum of Modern Art exhibition Photography: 1837-1937.
The Museum of Modern Art mounts Walker Evans: American Photographs and publishes a book of the same title. Evans begins a series of New York subway portraits using a concealed 35mm camera, completed in 1941. He applies for a Guggenheim Fellowship. Denied at first, he is awarded a grant in 1940, using it to continue work on the subway series.
Evans is included in the Museum of Modern Art exhibition, Art in Our Time. Evans makes his first visit to the Lyme area, arranging to meet Jane Smith Ninas who is staying with the Voorhees family on Grassy Hill Road. He begins to frequent the area, building a studio adjacent to the Voorhees house in the 1940s.
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Evans’ collaboration with James Agee, is finally published. Evans marries Jane Smith Ninas. In the summer, as the U.S. began arming itself for war, Evans is commissioned by Fortune to photograph the munitions plants in Bridgeport, resulting in his first major portfolio for Fortune: “Bridgeport’s War Factories.” While there he also photographed patriotic marches and New England city scenes.
Evans works for Time magazine, reviewing books, art and cinema. He uses his smaller 2 1/4 x 2 1/4 and 35mm cameras more frequently. In 1945, he becomes a full-time staff photographer for Fortune magazine.
Sent to the midwest by Fortune, Evans produces “Chicago: A Camera Exploration.” In Detroit, he shoots “The Rebirth of Ford” and again resorts to surreptitious portraiture for the Fortune portfolio, “Labor Anonymous.”
The Art Institute of Chicago hangs a retrospective exhibition of Evans’ work.
Evans continues working for Fortune magazine, but as the Special Photographic Editor, until 1965. He is particularly pleased that he does not have to answer to the art department and instead has the freedom to execute his own ideas.
Fortune publishes Evans’ portfolio “Along the Right of Way,” an experiment in color photography shot from the windows of trains. Only seven images appear in the magazine, even though Evans shoots well over one hundred photos, typical of his working methods.
In a Fortune essay entitled “The Beauties of the Common Tool,” accompanied by five photographs of tools, Evans writes: “Among low-priced, factory-produced goods none is so appealing to the senses as the ordinary hand tool.” Evans helps photographer Robert Frank with his project The Americans. His old friend James Agee dies, and Evans divorces Jane Smith Ninas.
Evans visits London doing a project on English sports for Sports Illustrated. He photographs golf at St. Andrews and the Henley Royal Regatta in Cambridge.
Architectural Forum publishes “Color Accidents,” consisting of six color studies of paint-flaked walls. Evans says his inspiration came from Paul Klee and Jackson Pollock. Photos from his sea voyage to England are published in Architectural Forum’s, “Ships, Shapes and Shadows.”
Evans receives his second Guggenheim Fellowship. His project is a vague book of pictures of America. Evans later recalled, “It often happens that a Guggenheim just saves somebody’s life; it doesn’t subsidize it.”
Evans meets the photographer Diane Arbus and they share ideas with one another about anonymous portraiture. Houghton Mifflin publishes the second edition of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, for which Evans significantly edits the photo layout. Evans marries his second wife, a young Swiss woman named Isabelle von Steiger.
The Museum of Modern Art publishes a second edition of American Photographs. A third edition appears in 1975 and a 50th anniversary edition in 1989. “The Auto Junkyard,” photographed on Grassy Hill Road in Lyme, Connecticut, is published in Fortune.
Evans joins the faculty at Yale University’s School of Art and Architecture in the Graphic Design department, where he critiques student photographers’ work and leads photo expeditions. He showcases his picture postcards in his inaugural lecture there entitled “Lyric Documentary,” calling it his “aesthetic autobiography.”
Evans’ last portfolio for Fortune, “American Masonry,” is published including images of Connecticut stone walls. Over 250 images were shot for the spread.
The Museum of Modern Art exhibits Evans’ subway series, which is also published that year in Many Are Called. Eakins Press publishes Message from the Interior, consisting of twelve images printed by sheet-fed gravure. The Robert Schoelkopf Gallery in New York exhibits forty prints. Evans moves into his newly-built house in Lyme, Connecticut.
Evans receives an honorary degree from Williams College, where he had previously been a student, dropping out after only one year.
Evans writes an essay for Quality, Its Image in the Arts proclaiming the vulgarity of color photography. He travels to Nova Scotia where he visits and photographs his old friend Robert Frank.
The Museum of Modern Art mounts a major retrospective of two hundred images with a catalogue introduction by John Szarkowski, bringing a wide rediscovery of Evans’ work. Yale University Art Gallery exhibits signs and advertisements collected by Evans in Walker Evans: Forty Years. A portfolio of fourteen signed prints is published by Ives-Sillman. Evans sits for two lengthy interviews, one published in Art in America and the other recorded for Archives of American Art.
Evans retires from his teaching job at Yale but continues his traveling workshops. He does an artist residency at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. He undergoes surgery for a perforated ulcer while he is there.
Evans returns to his house in Lyme to recover. He divorces his second wife, Isabelle. Evans travels to Georgia with his newly acquired Polaroid SX-70. He also visits London and returns to Hale County, Alabama, using his new camera as well as older models.
Evans continues to travel, lecturing at many colleges including Oberlin, University of Texas, and Rhode Island School of Design. Though his health is deteriorating, Evans supervises the Double Elephant Press’s publication of a portfolio of fifteen gelatin silver prints. He produces nearly 2500 Polaroid prints.
Evans sells his entire print collection to a dealer with an option for a later purchase of the negatives. On April 8th, Evans gives his last lecture at Radcliffe College. On April 10th he dies of a stroke at Yale New Haven Hospital. His will directs that no memorial service be held.