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Walker Evans’ Reflections on His Great Depression Photos

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The great American photographer Walker Evans is best known for his stark photos that document the years of the Great Depression in the US. In the 4.5-minute video above, produced many years afterwards, Evans looks back on his photography and offers a glimpse into his mindset at the time he shot it.

Although many of his works are in the permanent collections of major museums now and praised as being some of the most powerful images made in American history, Evans had a much smaller and less ambitious view of what he was doing at the time.

“I was very innocent about government, about Washington,” he says in the video. “I did it so carelessly — I just photographed everything that attracted me at the time… and rather unconsciously was recording that period. I didn’t think of it as such. The work piled up, and some of it is looked at now as a record that I wasn’t even thinking of making.”

Floyd Burroughs, cotton sharecropper. Hale County, Alabama. 1935.
Floyd Burroughs, cotton sharecropper. Hale County, Alabama. 1935.
Independence Day, Terra Alta, West Virginia. July 1935.
Independence Day, Terra Alta, West Virginia. July 1935.
Resettlement homestead near Eatonton, Georgia. Briar Patch Project. March 1936.
Resettlement homestead near Eatonton, Georgia. Briar Patch Project. March 1936.

Evans says he was also focused on objectivity and simply documenting what he was seeing without giving any thought to social issues.

“The work produced at the Depression looks like social protest. It wasn’t intended to be. It wasn’t intended to be used as propaganda for any cause,” he states. “I suppose I was interested in calling attention to something, and even shocking people. But I don’t think I had the purpose of improving the world. I like saying what’s what.”

Mrs. Frank Tengle and Laura Minnie Lee Tengle, sharecroppers, near Moundville, Hale County, Alabama. 1936.
Mrs. Frank Tengle and Laura Minnie Lee Tengle, sharecroppers, near Moundville, Hale County, Alabama. 1936.
Kitchen in house of Floyd Burroughs, sharecropper, near Moundville, Hale County, Alabama. 1936.
Kitchen in house of Floyd Burroughs, sharecropper, near Moundville, Hale County, Alabama. 1936.
Tengle children, Hale County, Alabama. 1936.
Tengle children, Hale County, Alabama. 1936.
Floyd Burroughs and Tengle children, Hale County, Alabama. 1936.
Floyd Burroughs and Tengle children, Hale County, Alabama. 1936.

And many of Evans’ best photos may have been the result of luck as much as they were skill, the photographer says.

“I do regard photography as an extremely difficult act. I believe the achievement of a work that is evocative and mysterious and at the same time realistic is a great one, and a rare one, and perhaps sometimes almost an accident.”

“It’s akin to hunting, photography is. In the same way that you’re using a machine, and you’re actually shooting something, and you’re shooting to kill. You get the picture you want, that’s a kill. That’s a bullseye.”

New York, New York. 61st Street between 1st and 3rd Avenues. Children playing in the street. 1938.
New York, New York. 61st Street between 1st and 3rd Avenues. Children playing in the street. 1938.
County seat of Hale County, Alabama. 1935.
County seat of Hale County, Alabama. 1935.
Independence Day, Terra Alta, West Virginia. July 1935.
Independence Day, Terra Alta, West Virginia. July 1935.
New York, New York. 61st Street between 1st and 3rd Avenues. House fronts. 1938.
New York, New York. 61st Street between 1st and 3rd Avenues. House fronts. 1938.
Sidewalk scene in Selma, Alabama. December 1935.
Sidewalk scene in Selma, Alabama. December 1935.
Street scene, Kingwood, West Virginia. July 1935.
Street scene, Kingwood, West Virginia. July 1935.
Independence Day, Terra Alta, West Virginia. July 1935.
Independence Day, Terra Alta, West Virginia. July 1935.
Women selling ice cream and cake, Scotts Run, West Virginia. July 1935.
Women selling ice cream and cake, Scotts Run, West Virginia. July 1935.

You can find a larger collection of Evans’ Great Depression photos over on Photogrammar.

(via Getty Museum via Shutterbug)

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