I want to write about a photographer that most art and photography students know, but not that many street photographers know (or appreciate) online.
That photographer is Walker Evans, one of the most pivotal American photographer from the 20th century. He inspired a league of influential street photographers such as Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, Diane Arbus, and even Bruce Gilden. He is most famous for photographing the Great Depression with the FSA, his candid work of Subway riders in NYC, and his street photos and urban landscapes all around America (his most famous book being “American Photographs” which was the first photography exhibition to be held at the New York MOMA. He was also a non-dogmatic photographer who often proclaimed that the camera didn’t matter and experimented with the 35mm format of the Leica, the 2 1/4 format of the Rolleiflex, the cumbersome 8×10 large-format, and even using a Polaroid SX-90 more or less exclusively towards the end of his life.
There is a lot that I don’t know about Walker Evans, so I made it a point to learn more about him through doing research for this article. I hope that you find his work to be as inspirational as it was to me.
Before I start this article, I want to share this excerpt that Robert Frank said about Evans and his influence on his famous project, “The Americans“:
“When I first looked at Walker Evans’ photographs, I thought of something Malraux wrote: ‘To transform destiny into awareness.’ One is embarrassed to want so much for oneself. But, how else are you going to justify your failure and your effort?” – Robert Frank
1. Make a living with a day job
Like many photographers and artists, Evans was always straddling the line between paying his bills and being dead broke. Not only that, but Evans resented and was very reluctant to take on commercial work. Starting off, Evans supplemented his photography by having a day job, which ultimately gave him the freedom to photograph on his own terms. He shares more in an interview:
L.K. How did you make a living?
Walker Evans: I had a night job on Wall Street in order to be free in the daytime. It paid for room and food. You didn’t have to sleep or eat much. In those days I was rather ascetic; I didn’t lead the bohemian life Crane led.
Takeaway point: Evans held a day job (or in this case, “night job”) in order to pay his bills
which also gave him the freedom to photograph during the day as he’d like. I think in life freedom to do what you want is one of the most valuable things, more than material wealth or anything else. Many of us want more time to shoot on the streets, but we think that we need to work more to earn more money, which will give us more time to shoot on the streets. I used to believe this, but when I had my day job I actually found my job to suck way more physical and mental energy which could have been better used towards my photography.
Therefore realize that regardless of whatever your profession is, photography is your ultimate passion and whatever you do to pay the bills doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter that you work as a photographer to pay the bills. Rather, I think it is a better strategy to hold a day job and work on your personal photography projects completely on your own terms (to prevent having professional photography gigs corrupt your personal photography work).
So remember at the end of the day, don’t spend so much time at work (this means not staying in the office after 6pm) that it robs time from your photography. Try to free up as much of your time to go out and shoot.
2. Give yourself a visual education
PAUL CUMMINGS: How did the camera appear? Was that through a friend? Or what happened?
WALKER EVANS: I really don’t know very much about that. I just don’t know. As a boy I had a cheap little camera and I had gone through the hobby photography experience developing film in the bathroom and so on. And I think it came from painters. Several of my friends were painters. And I had a visual education that I had just given myself.
One of the greatest things about photography is that it is the most democratic art form. Anyone can do it, even a five year old child or a chimpanzee. You just give them this magical box, have them aim it, click, and you will have them create an image.
However that is also exactly the downside of photography. Nowadays it is easy for anyone to make a technically perfect image with the technology we have today with auto exposure and ISO. But someone who has absolutely no training will have a harder time painting something that is technically perfect.
I also find that from the friends who I know who are painters– they have all had a “visual education” in terms of the great painters who came before them– giving them a clear understanding of what great art was.
I think the rise of the Internet and social media has been a great equalizer, but has also impoverished the visual education that many photographers receive. There are tons of great street photographers on Flickr, but they are only 1% of the 1%. 99.99% of the street photographs you see on the Internet are rubbish, but a lot of street photographers starting off see those poor images– and therefore have a poor “visual education.”
Walker Evans gained his eye for knowing what a great photograph was through the visual education of his painter friends. He undoubtedly became influenced by the great works of artists that his friends would probably talk about, share, and aspire towards. Similarly, Adam Marelli says that photographers can often learn more about what makes a great image through the work of painters and other artists (not photographers).
Takeaway point: So how do you improve your own “visual education”? First of all, you must learn what a great image is. I would recommend not starting off looking at photography, but much further back. Photography as a serious art form has been less than 100 years, but painting, sculpture, and drawing go back thousands upon thousands of year. Study the classic painters from the Renaissance and see how they painted their subjects
in which position and how they “composed” the frame. Look at the the direction of he light in the image, and where it falls upon. How many subjects are in the piece? Where are they looking? What makes the image feel balanced? How did they use color to add drama or attention?
Once you get your feet wet with the classic painters, then head towards the classic photographers. Buy their photo books, study their compositions, and feel the emotions that their images elicit. Always ask yourself: what did the photographer see when taking this image? Why did they think it was a significant event? How do they utilize and fill the frame? What makes it memorable?
By constantly asking yourself these questions you will embark on a rich and fulfilling visual education, and start to give your body the inspiration it deserves.
3. Go against the style of the time
When Evans first started to take photographs, he was first interested in it because it was the “forbidden fruit”– a medium which no artist took seriously. Part of him was a rebel – so he took up photography to rebel against the conventions of the time. When he is asked about his inspirations in photography, he answers:
PAUL CUMMINGS: Where do you think [your inspiration] came from? Through literature?
WALKER EVANS: I don’t know. No, no. I was just drawn to that. Partly I think added to it is the fact that I think I associated that with forbidden fruit, really. It was not the thing to do. So I would do it.
Even when Evans was serious about photographing in the late 1920’s he hated the contemporary style and aesthetic of the time
which resembled more “fine art” than the rugged street life he would photograph:
PAUL CUMMINGS: What kind of things did you photograph? What were you interested in doing with the camera at that point?
WALKER EVANS: I think I was photographing against the style of the time, against salon photography, against beauty photography, against art photography.
PAUL CUMMINGS: The whole elaborate business –
WALKER EVANS: Yes. Even including Stieglitz. I was doing non-artistic and non- commercial work. I felt – and it’s true – I was on the right track. I sensed that I was turning new ground. At least I though I was mining a new vein, sort of instinctively knowing it but not in any other way aware of it.
Cliches are also something that Evans tried his hardest to steer away from:
PAUL CUMMINGS: What do you think were the qualities of salon photography that aggravated you or that you reacted against?
WALKER EVANS: Oh, conventionality, cliché, unoriginality.
Takeaway point: Photography, like many other form of arts, has certain fads, contemporary styles, and phases. Whenever people talk about the work of Walker Evans they exclaim how much of a visionary he was, how he paved new roads, and broke new ground. He was able to do this not because he followed the conventions of the time– but rebelled against them and took his own path.
I think when it comes to contemporary street photography, it is very different to have unique work from others and stand out. However photography has only been around for a hundred years or so– I still think there is a lot of uncharted territory in terms of aesthetic, compositions, subject matter, and approaches.
So whatever you see others doing online
be inspired by it, but don’t follow it blindly. Don’t shoot with a flash because everyone else is doing it. Don’t just try to add more multi-subject shots because very one else is doing it. Don’t just work in high gritty contrast black and white because everyone else is doing it.
Rather, see what everyone else is doing– and do the opposite. That is where you will find your work to be different and unique.
4. Photograph reality (even if it is brutal)
I think one of the things that draws me most to street photography is how honest and real it is. However at the same time, reality can be quite cruel and brutal. This is what first drew Evans to photography:
PAUL CUMMINGS: That you studied or looked at?
WALKER EVANS: No. Nothing. Well, I did get excited over one Paul Strand picture. I remember his famous Blind Woman excited me very much. I said that’s the thing you do. That really charged me.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Do you remember what the qualities were of that photograph?
WALKER EVANS: The Strand picture? Sure. It was strong and real it seemed to me. And a little bit shocking; brutal.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Well, those were qualities then that you worked for – right?
WALKER EVANS: Well, that’s what attracted me in art. I mean I would read a book like Thompson’s Hunger and that was a joy because I thought that was real. It really wasn’t. But the lack of judgment of this particular youth – me – led me to believe that since I had a genteel upbringing that real life was starvation; so that it was honest to write about that. That’s all wrong; but that’s what I thought. I thought to photograph the Blind Woman was the thing to do.
Takeaway point: Street photography is both difficult in terms of the approach (having the guts to photography stranger) but also difficult ethically (is it “right” for me to photograph this person?)
Know that reality is not pretty. There are a lot of things that are unfair, unjust, and cruel in society. However I feel when it comes to street photography, we shouldn’t always turn a blind eye to what isn’t pretty to look at. Street photography shouldn’t only be pretty photos: I feel we have a moral obligation to show the wrongs in society.
Now I’m not saying just go out and start photographing every single homeless person that you see on the streets. Rather, approach your photography in a holistic way, showing the positives and negatives of society in a humane and just way.
Nobody can really say what is the “right” way to approach what is and what’s isn’t ethical to shoot. I would say the important thing is consider your intent with your photography: are you taking a photograph that will ultimately help society for a greater good? If so, take the shot. If you feel it is a gratuitous photograph (only for yourself) I wouldn’t take the shot.
5. Work instinctively
I think when it comes to shooting on the streets, it is very difficult to do many things at once. It is hard to compose, frame, time the shot, have the right setting, communicate with your subject, and more in the course of just a few seconds.
Street photography is very instinctual– both in terms of the approach when you are on the streets and ultimately the type of photos that you take.
While I do believe there is value in having an ultimate purpose when it comes to photographing (we will talk more on that later) it is also important to work with your guts and instinct.
Evans shares his mindset when photographing in the 1930’s:
PAUL CUMMINGS: What about the photographs you were taking during the thirties? Did you have a specific set of ideas or theory about them? Or did you just go out and kind of work and develop?
WALEKR EVANS: I was working by instinct but with a sense – not too clear – but a firm sense that I was on the right track, that I was doing something valuable and also pioneering aesthetically and artistically. I just knew it. And Kirstein helped me a lot. He used to tell me what I was doing. I really learned a lot from him. He was a very perceptive critic and esthete. Oh, yes.
Takeaway point: When it comes to working on the street– there are generally two ways you can work. First, you can work instinctively (just photograph anything that interests you) or secondly, you can work more in a project-oriented approach (photograph with a project in mind).
However, I don’t think it necessarily has to be one or the other. You can combine the two– and have more of a hybrid approach.
I think you can definitely work instinctively while working on a project-based approach. You can do this by simply surveying a certain neighborhood, city, or area
and photographing whatever catches your eye (with having a book in mind). The benefit of working this way is that it gives you more freedom and prevents you from becoming too stuck and restricted.
I think that street photography should ultimately be fun and liberating. The moment that you feel trapped by your photography and it isn’t what your heart is telling you to do – I would suggest to move on and try a more flexible approach.
6. Have a sense of purpose
One of the questions I often ask photographers (but they often hvae a hard time answering is): “Why do you photograph?”
This simple question is actually very difficult to answer. Going into the “why” of everyday life takes deep thought and consideration. It makes us consider why we were put on this earth, what our ultimate mission is– and what we want to achieve through our work.
In terms of street photography, I think it should be more than just snapping photos of random strangers. I think you should have a purpose in why you are doing it. Are you trying to make a societal critique? Are you trying to show the beauty of everyday life? Are you trying to document history of a certain place?
Evans shares his sense of purpose, and how it is less about finding acceptance from others:
PAUL CUMMINGS: Have you kind of eliminated ideas or experience and developed other ones?
WALKER EVANS: No. The chief thing I’ve noticed is a solidifying of purpose and conviction and I’ve gained security about what I’m doing. But also part of me says: beware of this, don’t accept acclaim; be careful about being established. There’s this problem. How do you get around the Establishment when something is establishing you? You’re established when you’re in these big museums. I find that quite a challenge. That’s why I’m going to do something with all these things, you find something else, establish that. Part of me doesn’t want this to be established. It shouldn’t be because it tames it. I think I’m doing something that is not acceptable. To find acceptance is quite a thing.
Takeaway point: Follow your heart when it comes to your photography- and dig deep on why you photograph. The more you ask yourself “Why do I shoot street photography?” the more clarity and purpose you will gain with your work.
7. Focus on words and letters
One of the most practical things I’ve learned from Walker Evans is that we don’t always have to photograph people. In-fact, Evans was less interested in photographing people and more interested in incorporating them into the urban landscape.
Words, letters, signage, billboards are part of our everyday existnece. Even back then, they were bombarded with advertising
messages on huge boards that tried to convince to to try out a new toothpaste, watch a new show, or to drive a new car.
You especially see in Evans work– his fascination with signs and words. When he was photographing this during his era– it was considered something odd to do. But now we look at his images- and proclaim how “interesting” and “retro” things used to look back then. However for him- these signs were quite ordinary and boring– it is only now that we find it interesting (everything in the past tends to seem more interesting).
Evans shares why he is so interested in signs:
PAUL CUMMINGS: Also a lot of them have signs. Are you interested in letters and in words?
WALKER EVANS: Yes. More and more that’s coming to a head right now. Oh, yes, lettering and signs are very important to me. There are infinite possibilities both decorative in itself and as popular art, as folk art, and also as symbolism and meaning and surprise and double meaning. It’s a very rich field.
PAUL CUMMINGS: It runs all the way from one kind of restaurant sign that has a menu in the window to very kind of precisely painted signs or billboards.
WALKER EVANS: Yes. Oh, they’re very important to me. Yes.
PAUL CUMMINGS: What is the appeal for you? Do you know why they are important to you?
WALKER EVANS: No, I don’t know why. I think in truth I’d like to be a letterer. And then broadly speaking I’m literary. The sign matters are just a visual symbol of writing.
What I also found fascinating about Evans was the fact that he was also very interested in writing, reading, and literature. I think that had a huge influence in his photography – how he was attracted to words as symbols and metaphors of life.
Takeaway point: When shooting on the streets, don’t just focus on the people. Consider the urban landscape– and especially the signs, billboards, and advertisements you see.
Realize that all of these messages you see today seem quite unintersting– but inevitably 50 years from now someone in the future will find them fascinating.
Signs, billboards, and advertisements say a lot about contemporary society– what we value (or what advertisers are trying to sell us). Therefore it is an important part of our social fabric.
So when photographing signs, don’t just shoot them in a boring and standard head-on type of way. Try to incroporate them into what is around them, whether it be the buildings, the people interacting with them, or more.
Also try to steer clear of the cliche of random people walking by billboards which don’t say much. Try to create a juxtaposition or a connection between the signs and the people – that has a deeper meaning.
8. Don’t become overly interested in technical perfection
In today’s digital age, we are obsessed with lens sharpness, camera sensor resolution, post-production magic– and more.
However regardless of how technically perfect an image is– if it has no soul it isn’t a memorable or meaningful photograph.
While it is important to create photos that are technically competent– Evans warns us that we shouldn’t become overly interested in post-processing and the technical aspects of photography:
PAUL CUMMINGS: Are you interested in all the darkroom techniques that one can use?
WALKER EVANS: I’m always interested in it but I don’t think it should get out of hand. I think it is dangerous particularly when you’re young to get over-interested in that. By now I just simply feel that anybody that applies to it should be expected to produce very competent technical work and I go on from there.
PAUL CUMMINGS: I notice that in the Yale show, as well as the one at the Museum of Modern Art, that there are no tricks, or apparent tricks that are so easy to do.
WALKER EVANS: That again, is a matter of style and taste. I don’t believe in manipulation, if that’s what you mean, of any photographs or negatives. To me it should be strictly straight photography and look like it; not be painterly ever.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Very straightforward printing.
WALKER EVANS: Yes. Photographs should be photographic.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Yes. But no dodging and all that –
WALKER EVANS: Yes. You dodge in printing but it doesn’t show. You don’t manipulate the negative any other way; you don’t touch the negative. You just dodge; that’s all.
Takeaway point: Evans admitted being interested in darkroom techniques, but he tried to stress the fine line between making a technically competent print, without getting too nerdy about it.
I am a bit more traditional when it comes to post-processing. I don’t like photos that are HDR’d to death or have selective coloring. I think it looks tacky.
However everyone has their own taste when it comes to post-procesing, and I respect that. So therefore I recommend you to experiment with processing and the technical experimentation of photography – but don’t make that the primary preoccupation of your work.
Focus on first taking great photos– photos that hit you in the gut and are emotionally stirring. The technical considerations should follow.
9. Aim for “visual impact”
I feel that one of the secrets to making a great photograph is to make it memorable. But how can we make a memorable photograph when there is a sea of photos being flooded to Facebook and Flickr everyday? How can we make our photos stand out?
Evans shares the importance of having “visual impact” when it comes to creating a good photograph:
PAUL CUMMINGS: Could you describe in some kind of terms what makes a good photograph for you? I mean if you look at ten photographs what are the qualities that you would look for to kind of separate them?
WALKER EVANS: Detachment, lack of sentimentality, originality, a lot of things that sound rather empty. I know what they mean. Let’s say, “visual impact” may not mean much to anybody. I could point it out though. I mean it’s a quality that something has or does not have. Coherence. Well, some things are weak, some things are strong. You just have to…. Well, if you’ve got something in front of you and you’ve got some students you throw those words around and point them out.
PAUL CUMMINGS: What would visual impact be? Would that be the way the photograph is taken?
WALKER EVANS: I purposely took that because it is a vague phrase. To me there are varying degrees of that in the picture. Sometimes it may be that that isn’t the quality you want. It’s important that – I can show you a picture that’s strong in it, and one that’s weak in it. Well, just like all these qualities that…. A man that’s interested in theatre may say, “That isn’t theatre,” or “That isn’t good theatre.” I often say that in photography. Or that it’s too pictorial; that’s another thing I’m against. These are words that you throw around to make your students interested and make them come alive.
Evans is very vague when it comes to describing what “visual impact” is. However it is in this vagueness which makes the search for what “visual impact” is more interesting.
I think “visual impact” means different things for different people – but we all can instinctually know what is an impactful photograph and what isn’t.
The way I interpret it is a photograph that etches itself into your memory and colors your thoughts in a different way. A photo with “visual impact” dyes itself into your mind- and influences how you see the world.
The most memorable photos taken in history were probably from the Vietnam War– photos that challenged us to rethink our humanity and the pain and suffering that others feel. They are photos that are emotional (regardless of what Evans said that he prefers photos that have ‘detachment.’)
Takeaway point: To figure out which of my photos have “visual impact” I do the following:
a) When I am showing my friends and close colleagues my photographs on my iPad or laptop, I judge how quickly they look through my photos and which photos they pause on and ruminate on. The photos that often catch their attention causes them to halt their process of flipping through my images – and I know that there is something about the image that is memorable– that forced them to stop. While it doesn’t necessarily mean it is a good photograph, it certainly has “visual impact.”
b) I also let my photos “marinate” for a long time as a judge if the photo is good or not. For example, I generally try to wait at least a few months (at least 6 months to a year) before uploading photos to the web.
Why? I find that if I still like looking at a photograph I took 6 months to 1 year ago, it still has enough strong “visual impact” that I enjoy looking at it. 99% of the time I find that photos I first enjoyed looking at (in the first month or so) I start to despise a few months later.
Also use the analogy of water and oil. If you mix water and oil together, they eventually separate. Over time, the oil rises to the top (the good photos) and the water sinks (the bad photos).
c) Think if people 20 years will find the photo interesting. This is a technique I learned from Satoki Nagata
consider if you think a photo you take today will still be interesting or relevant 20 years from now. If so, it might have enough “visual impact” to stand the test of time. If not, you might want to discard it (or never show it publically online).
10. Build your experiences
At the end of the day, there are no shortcuts when it comes to photography. Evans (towards the end of his life) shares that his experience over several decades in photography eventually trained him to understand what “works” or what “doesn’t work” based on his experiences. Experience is something you can’t side-step– but something you must wade in to understand photography on a deeper level:
PAUL CUMMINGS: Well, people decide, you know, between, say, ten photographs. The ones that more people say yes about the chances are will exist in some way for a longer period.
WALKER EVANS: Well, again to return to teaching: Experience is very important. It comes only with time. I have time behind me so I venture to teach and say to students, “I don’t really know a hell of a lot more than you do except I’ve been around longer and I do have experience and if I can articulate it some of it will rub off and do you some good.” When I didn’t have experience that’s one thing I learned, that I needed it. It comes – talking to an experienced man is something; it’s not the same as having it but it’s better than not.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Is this the experience of just living, or the experience of working in photography?
WALKER EVANS: Everything.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Everything. The total combination. Yes.
WALKER EVANS: Well, if you’re sixty-five years old and you’ve tested a whole lot of things and a lot of them have gone wrong you know that certain things have value and you know where the value is likely to be found by experience. When you’re only thirty you don’t know enough to be sure what you’re doing. Or particularly if you’re only twenty. I can give a very good example of that: That boy working for the Yale News went to that show at Yale and he missed the point. He would say, “This is wonderful photography. Evans is at his worst when he tried to do a gimmick, which is putting up these signs.” Well, that’s missing the whole point. That isn’t gimmick at all. That’s the nugget of that show.
One of my favorite nuggets from this excerpt is when he told his students that he didn’t know that much more than them
but what he had was his experience to back up his thoughts.
Evans was human like the rest of us– not some sort of photography demi-god. He became a famous and renowned photographer not necessarily that he was better than all the other photographers out there– but he worked hard in his photography throughout his lifetime and had the right connections (having his work exhibited at the MOMA certainly helped).
Takeaway point: Don’t be frustrated that you aren’t as famous as some of the great street photographers out there. Know that it comes with time.
Also when it comes to understanding what great photography is– what works, and what doesnt work (in terms of composition, technical approaches, etc) it is based mostly on experience.
However when it comes to experience
it isn’t necessarily how long you photograph, but how intensely you photograph and think about photography.
For example, one could say that they have been “photographing for 50 years” but if they only took out their camera once a month to take some photos of rainbows and flowers
it probably doesn’t compare to a photography student who photographs (or studies photography) 80 hours a week, and working intensely for 4 years. The photography student has ultimately put in more hours than his fictionary elder.
So if you are serious about your photography and passionate about it– dedicate your entire life to it. Dedicate your waking hours thinking about it. During the day (when you are bored and have down-time at work) explore the Magnum Photos website, and understand what makes a great photograph. Go out and shoot whenever you have time during your lunch breaks (or your weekends). Meet up with other serious photographers and give and receive brutal critiuqes on your work.
This will give you the necessary experience to hopefully one day become a great photographer.
11. Don’t become married to your beliefs
One of the most controversial things that Walker Evans said when it came to color photography. To paraphrase, he referred to color photography as “vulgar” and that black and white was the true medium for photography.
However a few years after he said that, he actually started to experiment with color photography with a Polaroid camera. Therefore what he did was a bit hypocritcal– but he did the honorable thing by admitting his mistakes and taking on a new view:
Yale: Have you ever tried color film and do you think it renders a less honest image than black and white?
Walker Evans.: No, I’ve tried it. I’m in a stage right now that has to do with color and I’m interested in it. But I don’t think that the doors open to falsehood through color are any greater than they are through the manipulation of prints in black and white. You can distort that, too. I happen to be a gray man; I’m not a black-and-white man. I think gray is truer. You find that in other fields. E. M. Forster’s prose is gray and it’s marvelous.
Yale: Most of the people who have been doing color seem to be drawn to the dramatic, like Ernst Haas.
Walker Evans: I understand all that, but I’ve now taken up that little SX-70 camera for fun and become very interested in it. I’m feeling wildly with it. But a year ago I would have said that color is vulgar and should never be tried under any circumstances. It’s a paradox that I’m now associated with it and in fact I intend to come out with it seriously.
Takeaway point: I feel one of the most dangerous things is to become married to your thoughts and opinions. The dangerous part of this is once you get stuck in thinking one sort of way- you fall into limiting yourself creatively and fail to embrace a larger view of the world.
I find myself making hypocritcal statements all the time and rather than being embarassed about it: I am proud of it. Whenever I say something that contradicts what I said a year or two ago, it shows to me that I have learned something new (and that my old self was wrong).
For example, a few years ago I never understood the real value of shooting film. It seemed like a waste of time and money, especially with the convenience of digital. However now after over two years of being dedicated to shooting my personal street photography work on film, I better understand the benefits and prefer it to shooting digitally. Had I been scared to contradict my previous statements– I wouldn’t have enjoyed the beauty and joy of shooting film.
So don’t become married in your own beliefs whether it be related to photography (or personal). Keep an open mind – and when it comes to contradicting yourself or being hypocritical – revel in it and embrace it. Admit your past wrongs, and search to try new things that will help you grow and develop photographically (and as a human being).
12. Embrace simple cameras
Walker Evans is most famous for shooting the majority of his life’s work on a Leica, a Rolleiflex, or an 8×10 camera. However one camera that he discovered late in his life was the Polaroid SX-70, a simple automatic camera that he shot color on.
According to former students, he would always carry the Polaroid with him on his daily outings, and make “…hundreds of pictures of signs, bits of litter, and the faces of his friends and students.” (according to friend and student Jerry L. Thompson).
Another story from William Christenberry is that when he went on a trip to Hale County, he brought his Rolleiflex and the Polaroid SX-70, but Evans never even took out the Rolleiflex from the case. He only used the Polaroid.
When asked why he embraced using the Polaroid camera, he stated the benefits how it opened things for him:
“A practical photographer has an entirely new extension in that camera. You photograph things that you wouldn’t think of photographing before. I don’t even yet know why, but I find that I’m quite rejuvenated by it. With that little camera your work is done the instant you push that button. But you must think what goes into that. You have to have a lot of experience and training and discipline behind you. . . . It’s the first time, I think, that you can put a machine in an artist’s hands and have him then rely entirely on his vision and his taste and his mind.” – Walker Evans
Takeaway point: One of the worst obessesions that plagues photography is our obession of cameras (myself included). I have found that personally I spent way too much time early on in my photography experiences worrying about what camera to shoot with– rather than just going out and shooting.
If we can learn anything from Walker Evans is that there is a great merit to using a simple and automatic camera. It breaks us free of limitations– in worrying about technical settings, fancy equipment, or exotic lenses. It distills the photographic process into a much simpler experience. Of just pointing and clicking the shutter.
Daido Moriyama comes to mind- shooting the majority of his career on the simple Ricoh GR-series camera. It is a small and unassuming black point-and-shoot that is easy to operate, carry, and make photos with.
So when it comes to photography, don’t worry about the camera or technical aspects so much. Embrace whatever camera you have on with you at the time, whether it be your point and shoot or iPhone. Having a simpler camera is often better.
13. Compose instinctively
When we first started photography and wanted to learn the rules of composition – we applied them to taking photos of stationary things like trees, flowers, and landscapes.
However composing when it comes to street photography is much more difficult. When Evans was asked how he compsed, he said it was much more unconcious and instinctive:
L.K.: There is an abstract about the most literal photograph of yours. Do you think in terms of composition?
Walker Evans: I don’t think very much about it consciously, but I’m very aware of it unconsciously, instinctively. Deliberately discard it every once in a while not to be artistic. Composition is a schoolteacher’s word. Any artist composes. I prefer to compose originally, naturally rather than self-consciously. Form and composition both are terribly important. I can’t stand a bad design or a bad object in a room. So much for form. That way it’s placed is composition… when you stop to think about what an artist is doing one question is, what is the driving force, the motive?”
Takeaway point: One of the biggest problems that I find in street photographers starting off is that they spend too much time trying to frame and compose a scene– and not just shooting quickly from the gut. Composition and framing are incredibly crucial to street photography to make an effective frame – but these are things that come naturally over time. I think it is better to take the first shot from the gut- and then if you have the time, recompose and shoot the scene several more times.
But at the end of the day like Evans says– who cares about composition? We should be more concerned about the “driving force, the motive” of our photography.
14. Take photos worth taking
One of the critiques that modern digital photography has is that “everyone is a photographer now.” I really hate that mentality, because the inherent beauty of photography is the democratic nature.
However just because everyone can literally take a photograph- doesn’t mean it will be a good or meaningful photograph.
I suppose you can compare the Polaroid of Walker Evan’s time with the iPhone: even an idiot could use it (which was one of its main critiques). Evans shares his thoughts on why it is the photographer that matters more than the camera (by using writing as an allusion):
Yale: Maybe that’s one of the worst things about the SX-70 — that there is no technical hurdle. Just anyone can take shots.
Walker Evans: Well, that isn’t the worst thing. That’s always been true with anything, whether there’s any technical need or not. For example, we’re all taught to write, and anybody can sit down and write something. Not everybody can sit down and write something that’s worth writing.
Takeaway point: Everyone who is taught how to write can do it quite easily. However not everyone who writes has something worth writing about– or worth reading.
Apply the same mentality to your photography. Anyone can take a techncially proficient image now– but do they photograph something that is worth photographing. Or even more so– do they take photos that are worth looking at by others?
Ask yourself the question the next time you are out shooting: is the photo I am about to take worth taking? Will it have a deeper meaning and influence people in an emotional way? Am I trying to make a statement? Or is this photograph not worth taking?
If the photo isn’t worth taking- just don’t take the shot. Take photos that you feel deep in your heart and soul are worth shooting.
15. Turn your subjects into participants
One of the hardest things in street photography is taking photos of strangers you don’t know– and make them feel comfortable about it. At times, people are quite reluctant to being photographed. But how can we overcome that? Evans shares that we should make them feel more like a participant, than simply a subject.
“Incidentally, part of a photographer’s gift should be with people. You can do some wonderful work if you know how to make people understand what you’re doing and feel all right about it, and you can do terrible work if you put them on the defense, which they all are at the beginning. You’ve got to take them off their defensive attitude and make them participate.” – Walker Evans
Takeaway point: Although the majority of street photography is done candidly- it doesn’t always have to be candid. Take candid photos, but also take photos where you interact and talk with your subjects. Make them feel like they are a part of the photo-taking process, rather than just being the subjects.
After you take photos of your subjects, talk with them, figure out what their name is, where they are from, what their interests are. Show them the back of your LCD screen and share what you saw that was unique about them that you wanted to photograph. Offer to email them or sent them a copy of the photo. Make them feel like an active participant- and you will succeed more as a street photographer and human being.
16. Photograph ordinary things
One of the greatest beauties of street photography is that it celebrates the ordinary and unadorned things of everyday life. Evans has built a substantial body of work on ordinary things that he was criticized for. They weren’t considered “art” when he was photographing them – but he received recognition later on in his life.
“Aesthetically they both justified and vindicated even to myself. And that is that forty years ago when I was going around with a camera I was doing some things that I myself thought were too plain to be works of art. I began to wonder – I knew I was an artist or wanted to be one – but I was wondering whether I really was an artist. I was doing such ordinary things that I could feel the difference. But I didn’t have any support. Most people would look at those things and say, “Well, that’s nothing. What did you do that for? That’s just a wreck of a car or a wreck of a man. That’s nothing. That isn’t art.” They don’t say that anymore.” – Walker Evans
Takeaway point: Don’t always feel obliged that when you shoot in the streets, it has to be something totally outrageous or out of the ordinary. You don’t need an elephant on the road, pumpkins on fire, or people doing backflips. Rather, focus on the ordinary parts of everyday life– and make them appear extraordinary. This will also give you more opportunities to photograph, rather than just being drawn to the odd and strange event. The beauty of life is in the everyday, not the extraordinary.
17. Collaborate with other artists
One thing I found most fascinating about Walker Evans is his collaboration with writer James Agee in creating: “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.”
The book first was going to be a magazine article about the horrible conditions that sharecropper families enduredduring the “Dust Bowl” in America. However the magazine article was never published– but it became into a critically-acclaimed book.
But Agee and Evans both combined their talents (writing and photography) into a book which is described by Wikipedia:
“Agee’s text is part ethnography, part cultural anthropological study, and part novelistic, poetic narrative set in the shacks and fields of Alabama. Evans’ black-and-white photographs, starkly real but also matching the grand poetry of the text, are included as a portfolio, without comment, in the book.”
Takeaway point: I think the beauty of photography shouldn’t just be restricted. It is one of the most adaptable forms of art– that can be combined and remixed with other forms of expression. It is often said that photographs should just stand on their own. I agree to that sentiment in some regards– but I feel that photography can be transformed into something greater with accompanying text, video, or audio.
So when it comes to your photography, think about others ways how you can collaborate with other artists. Think of making a video slideshow of your work, that cuts in interviews with people on the street. Add ambient noise. Add fictionary text to accompany each photograph (while stating that they are fictional stories). Use your creativity and collaborate with others who have great ideas and visions.
Walker Evans was certainly a great pioneer in photography
not because he followed the path that others paved before him, but that he was a rebel and did things nobody else did. He photographed ordinary things, signs, and people which were against the popular “fine art aesthetic” of the time.
He also disgregarded conventions, cliches, and strove to create visual impactful images
photos that burned themselves into our thoughts and memories.
He was also fervent enough in photograhping America during his time that we have rich images of what it was half a century ago.
So let’s all try to follow in the footsteps of Evans and pave new ground in our street photography.
- Oral history interview with Walker Evans, 1971 Oct. 13-Dec. 23, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution
- “The Thing Itself is Such a Secret and so Unapproachable” George Eastman House, Image Magazine, Vol. 17., No.4, December, 1974, Originally Published in Yale Alumni Magazine, February, 1974.
- Text from the brochure for the exhibit “Walker Evans: Public Photographs “, University at Buffalo Art Gallery 20 March–24 April 1998
Walker Evans in His Own Words By the Getty museum
Below is a great video which mixes the audio of Walker Evans and some of his photos – to give you more insight about him.
I highly recommend purchasing the below books by Walker Evans– as the majority of the images you see online are either poor quality (or missing many influential images). The bonus is that his greatest works are readily available and very affordable on any budget:
A book that you must get for your library, his most famous work on America. A very cheap and affordable book.
2. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: The American Classic, in Words and Photographs, of Three Tenant Families in the Deep South ~ $12.00.
Another book you should get if you are interested in learning more about the share-cropper families in the South during the Dust Bowl– and if you want to see the original portfolio of images that Evans shot of the families.
3. Walker Evans: Signs ~ $15
If you are interested in signage and want to see a great collection of them by Evans – this book is for you. Also very affordable.
All photographs included in this article are copyrighted by Walker Evans / The Metropolitan Museum of Art.