Walker Evans

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The Depression Era photographs of Walker Evans (1903-1975) remain some of the most indelible and iconic images in the American consciousness. James R. Mellow's landmark biography of Evans-the first to make use of all his diaries, letters, work logs, and contact sheets-shows that Evans was not the social propagandist that many presume, but rather a fastidious observer, recording, simply, the way things were. Walker Evans is not only one of the most finely wrought portraits of a major American artist ever, it is ...

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The Depression Era photographs of Walker Evans (1903-1975) remain some of the most indelible and iconic images in the American consciousness. James R. Mellow's landmark biography of Evans-the first to make use of all his diaries, letters, work logs, and contact sheets-shows that Evans was not the social propagandist that many presume, but rather a fastidious observer, recording, simply, the way things were. Walker Evans is not only one of the most finely wrought portraits of a major American artist ever, it is also a fascinating cultural history of America in the 1930s and '40s.

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Editorial Reviews

Margarett Loke
...[A] reader wading through [the book] is rewarded with a tantalizing, often revealing portrait of one of photography's most literary artists....Mellow expertly charts the trajectory of Evans's soaring career in the context of the times....Evans said [in a 1947 interview in Time]: "My work is like making love....It has to spring from the moment, from what I feel at the moment. That's all." —The New York Times
A wonderfully definitive portrait of a great artist.
A magnificent achievement which does justice to a great American artist.
New Republic
A captivating portrait of a shadowy artist. Mellow's idea is to achieve strong effects through a certain cautiousness of approach. The result is a narrative that has the prismatic, elusive, risky texture of life itself.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
When NBA-winning biographer James R. Mellow (Charmed Circle: Gertrude Stein & Company) died in 1997, he left behind an unfinished manuscript on the life of American photographer Walker Evans. That manuscript makes up the bulk of this book, and chronicles, in abundant detail, the first 53 years of Evanss life: 16 pages of Mellows notes conclude the volume by outlining Evanss activities from 1955 to 1977. This dense, well-documented study should satisfy anyone seeking a comprehensive account of Evanss early life, influence and photographic achievement, crowned by Evanss one-man show at the Museum of Modern Art in 1938 (the first photographer to be so honored) and by his collaboration with James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941). Mellow traces Evanss modern style with an expert eye, finding its source in the French photographer Eugene Atget, and its birth in 1926, the year Evans (who had wanted to be a writer) spent in Paris. Mellow glosses over a key incident in Evanss early years: when Evans was 15, his father, a Midwestern advertising executive, moved in with the familys next-door neighbor, neither divorcing Evanss mother nor marrying the neighbor. This duplicitous arrangement surely helped produce an adolescent who grew up to value candor in his photography. Mellows analyses of the photographs he reproduces, however, and Hilton Kramers excellent introduction, help explain why his work seemed so modern, and what kinds of pleasure it can give us now. Evans the man seems to have been an Anglophilic snob and a coward. His final two decadeswhich he spent as a professor at Yalehave already been chronicled in Jerry Thompsons poignant The Last Years of Walker Evans; as those years didnt produce Evanss best work, their absence from Mellows manuscript hardly reduces his achievement. 150 b&w photos.
Library Journal
The late National Book Award winner Mellow 1926-97 had unrestricted access to Evans's diaries, work logs, contact sheets, taped interviews, and letters. He weaves these together with information gleaned from secondary sources to create a study of the man and his work habits, weaknesses and strengths, influences, and relationships. This is then a thorough study of Walker Evans's life, complementing rather than competing with the photohistorical assessment of his career found in Belinda Rathbone's Walker Evans: A Biography LJ 6/1/95. The book is illustrated with photos not published elsewhere, but the images are not the book's strength. One of Mellow's surprising conclusions is that Evans was not a propagandist for social causes but simply an unflinchingly clear-eyed observer. Evans expressed his distaste for all that was artificial in photography; it is the complexity of his seemingly unemotional and factual images that remains today. Highly recommended for biography, American studies, and photohistory collections.--Kathleen Collins, Bank of America Corporate Archives, San Francisco
A comprehensive biography of the hugely influential photographer, written with unrestricted access to his diaries, letters, work logs and contact sheets. The author, an acclaimed biographer, discusses Evans's style as emblematic of a shift in the aesthetic values of 20th century American art. Evans is shown to be not the social propagandist he is often assumed to be from his famous Depression-era photographs, but rather the advocate of an uncompromising photographic realism. Some of his photographs are included, but the volume would be best enjoyed accompanied by a good collection of Evans's work. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknew.com)
Kay Redfield Jamison
...Evans [was] a man who was essentially private, solitary, and somewhat dour....[H]e could just as easily ennoble buildings, cars, and graveyards as those who built and would rest in them.
WQ: The Wilson Quarterly
Nicholas Fox Weber
Evans comes across as possessed by a brave and all-encompassing vision...straightforward, decisive and highly intelligent. He is also shown to have been cold and dismissive, an almost frightening combination of the brazen and the unanalytical....Sometimes we sense that he treated the people in his life the same way as the subjects of his photographs — they were there, so there they were — but even if Evans's sentiments were harsh or inaccessible, the scope of his lens was never in doubt.
The New York Times Book Review
Margarett Loke
...[A] reader wading through [the book] is rewarded with a tantalizing, often revealing portrait of one of photography's most literary artists....Mellow expertly charts the trajectory of Evans's soaring career in the context of the times....Evans said [in a 1947 interview in Time]: "My work is like making love....It has to spring from the moment, from what I feel at the moment. That's all."
The New York Times
Kirkus Reviews
A superb biography of a photographer who, dead for a quarter of a century, still exerts a powerful influence. The late literary biographer Mellow (Hemingway: A Life without Consequences, 1992, etc.), who died in 1997, views Walker Evans (1903–1975) primarily as a politically committed storyteller and documentarian; in this regard he echoes the critic Carl Van Vechten, who wrote of a 1938 collection of Evans's images of the Depression era, "if everything in American civilization were destroyed except Walker Evans's photographs, they could tell us a good deal about American life." Unlike some critics, however, Mellow does not take this to mean that Evans was primarily a left-wing propagandist, even if his most famous work, the photographs accompanying James Agee's text Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, were summary indictments of American capitalism. (Evans's friends, Mellow writes, were puzzled when in 1945 Evans accepted a position at the high-capitalist Fortune magazine, whose publisher Henry Luce had become convinced that "it is easier to turn poets into business journalists than to turn bookkeepers into writers" and who gave Evans a free hand during the photographer's 21 years on the magazine's staff.) The portrait that Mellow offers is one of Evans as an extraordinarily talented and hard-working artist but also as something of a wastrel, one who greeted his biographer at their first meeting in 1974 with the offer of an early-morning glass of brandy and who logged time getting soused with Ernest Hemingway in Cuba and Edmund Wilson in Manhattan. Despite his penchant for the bottle, though, as Mellow ably documents, Evans inspired and taught many young photographers, perhaps the mostnotable of them the Swiss émigré Robert Frank; he also crafted a rich body of work that is well represented in the 150 images placed throughout Mellow's text. Well written, lively, and thoroughly documented, Mellow's biography is a fine contribution to American art and cultural history.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780465090785
  • Publisher: Basic Books
  • Publication date: 12/1/2001
  • Pages: 654
  • Product dimensions: 6.14 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 1.72 (d)

Meet the Author

James R. Mellow (1926-1997) won the National Book Award in 1983 for his biography of Nathaniel Hawthorne. He was the author of a trilogy of biographies on writers of the Lost Generation, including Hemingway: A Life Without Consequences. In his forty-year career as a writer, art critic, and biographer, Mellow wrote for the New York Times, Architectural Digest, the Washington Post, Gourmet, and Arts magazine.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

School Years

Walker Evans III, as he sometimes jauntily referred to himself, was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on November 3, 1903. His father Walker Evans, Jr., an advertising man, had married the lively Jessie Beach Crane in St. Louis on January 15, 1900. The Evans family, according to an unidentified three-page typed genealogical tree in the Walker Evans archive, traced the family roots back to a John Laurence, born in Wisset, England, early in the seventeenth century, who later settled in Watertown, Massachusetts. The Laurence family line married into a succession of venerable New England families: Tarbells and Shedds and Haddens and Fullers. A Levi Laurence, born in Thetford, Vermont, on August 14, 1759, served for three years in the Revolutionary War and later became a deacon and lay preacher of the Baptist Church in Thetford. It was Levi's daughter, Mary Anne, born August 17, 1809, in Thetford, who married (in 1833 in St. Louis, Missouri) an Augustus Heaslip Evans, of an uncertain birth date, born in Woodstock, Virginia.

    There the family line becomes a bit confused in the unknown genealogist's research. The first Walker Evans, the photographer's grandfather, born May 29, 1844, in St. Louis, marries an Amanda Brooks, originally of Mexico, Missouri, on December 4, 1844, and December 4, 1877, in St. Louis. That their son Walker Evans, Jr., is listed as having been born on January 29, 1876, in Mexico, Missouri, a year or so before their marriage compounds the problem. Another complication is the notation that the photographer's sister, Jane Beach Evans (bornJanuary 5, 1902), attended the couple's fiftieth wedding anniversary in 1937 rather than 1927. And the notation for Walker Evans III incorrectly gives his birthdate as March 3, 1903, rather than November 3. There is also a pointed notation: "has no children."

    Perhaps it matters little in the life of the photographer, except that his mother, Jessie Beach Crane Evans, set some store on family connections. Judging from early family photographs of the Evanses and Cranes, it was a convivial family of aunts and uncles, nephews and nieces, of family visits and outings. A wedding photo of Walker's mother shows her, dainty slipper peeking forth from her lacy wedding gown and her head tilted to one side, with a coy beguiling smile. A photograph of Walker Evans's father taken the same year, 1900, shows him as dapper in a neatly tailored suit and vest, with pince-nez and smoothly parted hair. Another shows the father playing a guitar with a broad grin, while Jessie, leaning back on a slipcovered divan at what might be the Evans's family homestead, Fern Valley, near St. Louis, is looking thoroughly appreciative. There is, too, a picture of the young marrieds on a sailing expedition with family or friends, a perfect expression of turn-of-the-century life and pleasure, with Jessie staring knowingly at the photographer while her husband, seated on the deck, leans against her knees.

    It was in the nature of Walker Evans Jr.'s profession that the family moved a good deal and that the children's education was a chequered affair. Walker and his sister, Jane, attended a kindergarten in Kenilworth, Illinois, a well-to-do suburb of Chicago. From grade school, when he was about eight, he would recall, somewhat vaguely, a pair of teachers—sisters who "were very sympathetic and good women. They were wonderful."

    He claimed that he had been an apt pupil "until I discovered the choice of being bad and not doing well. But I was naïve. Maybe at the age of eight I was a star pupil, because I loved it. And I loved the teacher. But when I lost interest I became a very poor student," he admitted.

    His defection must have occurred later at about the age of twelve or thirteen, when he was in the seventh grade of the Fuller School in Toledo, Ohio. Walker's father had been given the account for Willys Overland, the automobile manufacturer: "That was a big thing. That was why he had to move there. He couldn't turn it down." There is a postcard view of his classmates: the boys of the "class of room 15," posed in shirts and ties and cardigan sweaters or more fashionable Norfolk jackets, a collection of prominent ears and professional smiles, betokening the seriousness of the occasion. It was in Toledo, apparently around the age of fourteen, "like every other child," that Evans first became interested in photography: "I did have a box camera, and I developed film in the bathroom." He was at that age, he said, "visual ... But I was both graphic and visual in school as well as literary, and I was always drawing. For example, in school we were supposed to draw some maps. I couldn't stop drawing maps, and I made fine maps. I just went on and on and on." He had painted, too, in childhood: "I'm a natural painter." But it was not all a matter of ease and facility: "I also went through a period of insecurity, shyness, and depression about it." When you were a child and then again when you were a young man, you looked at other people's paintings and realized that you couldn't do what they had done. "I had to get over that." In Toledo, Evans recalled, he attended high school for only a year or two. He was pulled out to attend a boys school, Loomis, in Windsor, Connecticut.

    But in Evans's scattered recollections he would recall that around 1919 or 1920, when he was sixteen or seventeen, he had attended the Mercersburg Academy in Pennsylvania. Fifteen years later, in 1935, on a photographic assignment traveling through Pennsylvania and West Virginia, he made a special trip, first to a hotel in Bedford Springs, Pennsylvania, where he and his "Happy Evans family" had stayed. He had become aware of the distance he had traveled in time from the young boy in white flannel long pants who, at fourteen or fifteen, had strolled along the causeway to the source of the springs. In 1935, for the first time, he had been struck by the architecture of the hotel and sardonically noted his failure to have noticed it when a boy: "Observant boy remembers classic portico and swimming pool but not rooms slept in, not a trace of memory of this, or of food eaten or dining room or arrival." Given his adult interest in vernacular architecture, he noted that he had "completely overlooked the gingerbread wings of the hotel" when he and his family had visited there.

    The following morning, leaving the hotel late in the morning, he continued his sentimental journey: "Visited Mercersburg Academy—deserted, touched by a mild rush of reminiscences that was I think me in 1919 or 1920. Discovered that some things did happen to me there and that I am at least partly the same person I was fifteen years ago. I liked something there more than I knew at the time. Discovered by comparison that space shrinks with advancing time, or seems to." There were reasons, it appears, for fixing the present in its irrevocable time: It would become a principle of his photography.

    Evans's education continued in the same spotty fashion. When his mother and father separated, Evans moved with his mother to New York City and from there, he was sent to Phillips Andover in Andover, Massachusetts, a prep school for well-to-do young boys. His performance those two years at Phillips Andover was hardly spectacular. Nevertheless, he was admitted to Williams College in Williamstown in September 1922. Despite the poor showing of his Andover records, Evans would claim, "I started reading at Andover with a real love of reading and then I carried it on so much at Williams that I didn't do much else but read in the library." Judging from his grades at Williams College, it may well have been true. Evans's recollection, supported by his records, was that he had dropped out of Williams after only one year. It was the end of his education, he claimed, "although I left in good standing. I don't remember studying anything. Paid a little attention in class." Evans's education did mark the beginning of a lifelong interest in literature, for, as he claimed, his first ambition in life, in fact, was to be a writer.

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Table of Contents

Introduction by Hilton Kramer
School Years
The Incandescent Center
Standing Aside
Words, Etc.
The Center of Things
The Indigenous Past
Cuba Libre
Seeing Red
The Politics of the Vernacular
Love in the Thirties
A Subsidized Freedom
A Curious Piece of Work
The Cruel Radiance of What Is
A Way of Seeing
A Penitent Spy and an Apologetic Voyeur
An Apartment of the East Side
Contemporary American Subjects
Resorters, Tourists, Émigres
Of Time. . .
. . .And Fortune: the Road Taken
"If It's There, It's There."
A Season of Endings
1957-1975: A Summary
List of Illustrations
A Brief Chronology
Selected Bibliography
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