Walker Evans: The Magazine Work
One of the pivotal figures of 20th-century photography, Walker Evans’s austere and formally precise images of the American vernacular helped define a stylistic approach to photography that continues to resonate with contemporary artists. His work received critical acclaim during his lifetime, and in 1938 he was the subject of the first solo photography exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art. But he also spent a large portion of his creative life working for magazines, both small avant-garde publications like Hound & Horn and Dance Index, and mainstream commercial outlets like Fortune, Vogue, and Harper’s Bazaar. And while individual works within this magazine corpus have appeared in anthologies and exhibitions since his death, the work has largely been ignored or, worse, as in the case of his later work at Fortune, dismissed as the work of an artist past his prime. David Campany’s new book, Walker Evans: The Magazine Work, offers a comprehensive look at this critical part of Evans’s oeuvre and makes a persuasive case for its centrality to our understanding not only of Evans’s work, but also of the significance of the printed page for the dissemination and presentation of lens-based imagery in the later part of the 20th century.
Evans began working for magazines in the late ’20s and early ’30s. From the outset, he was able to craft stories according to his own terms—usually pitching the assignments, dictating the layout, and even writing the captions. As a young photographer, Evans worked for magazines like the Architectural Record, where he shot abstracted, modernist images of buildings, shadows, and steel structures. Evans also took photographs and wrote essays for magazines such as Hound & Horn, an art and literary magazine out of Harvard co-founded by Lincoln Kirstein, a key supporter of Evans and later the author of the catalogue essay for Evans’s book American Photographs (1938).
While he worked for numerous magazines before and after his celebrated work with the Farm Security Administration in the mid-’30s, Evans is best known for his long association with Fortune magazine, for which he often disappeared for months at a time to complete an assignment. He was even given the position of Special Photographic Editor. Among his many notable stories is one from July 5, 1963, entitled “America’s Heritage of Great Architecture is Doomed … It Must Be Saved,” which features images of New York’s original Pennsylvania Station as it was slated for demolition. Although the beautiful beaux-arts building was eventually destroyed, Evans’s essay helped galvanize the architectural community, as well as other supporters, leading to protests and petitions to save the building.
Interestingly, Evans’s articles rarely struck such a nerve with the public. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941) was a commercial flop when released and did not receive critical acclaim until it was re-released in the ’60s. Evans may not have always received popular acclaim, but he was widely respected in his time for his work that sought to engage with and direct attention to overlooked or undervalued aspects of American vernacular culture. As Campany notes, Evans was “commit[ed] to the ideal of an intelligent and reflective pop culture.” This commitment was demonstrated again and again with photo essays on vernacular signage, storefronts, architecture, anonymous citizenry, and the beauty of common tools.
Evans also used his creative freedom at Fortune to offer more pointed critiques, often biting the hand that fed him. As Campany notes, “the majority of Evans’s pieces are quiet ripostes to what is going on in the rest of the magazine.” Campany argues persuasively that Evans’s critical use of the magazine as a creative space was ahead of its time. This was especially true in the ways that Evans used his articles to draw attention to “the limits and ideological underpinnings of the photo as document.” Most notably, Campany draws a comparison between his articles “Labor Anonymous” (Nov. 1946) and “Homes of Americans” (May 1946) and later conceptual pieces such as Martha Rosler’s “The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems” (1974 – 75) and Dan Graham’s “Homes for America” (1966). Decades before Rosler, Graham, and others, Evans used the magazine space to make pointed and sophisticated arguments about the nature of photographs, their relationship to text, and their status as documents.
Magazines have rarely been given serious critical consideration by photo historians, curators, and critics. Fortunately, scholars have turned their attention in recent years to the importance of magazines, books, and ephemera for the dissemination of lens-based imagery. Evans clearly cherished the challenge and opportunity of his magazine work, seeing it not merely as a way to make a living, but also as an important creative outlet for his ongoing exploration of American society. For most photographers in the mid- to late-20th century, the printed page was paramount. It was where they earned a living, did most of their work, and reached a wide audience. For those reasons alone, they demand closer scrutiny. Working at the peak of the popular press’ reach and influence, Evans had ample opportunity to explore his craft. Campany’s new book succeeds in filling an important gap in our understanding of Evans’s work, but it also, perhaps more importantly, demands that we look more closely at all the ways in which lens-based images circulate in our society.