The photographer Walker Evans was one of a group who worked for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) in the US during the depression-hit 1930s.
The FSA aimed to create positive images of economic recovery to promote President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programme that was setting up work schemes to revitalise the economy.
The FSA photography played a propagandist role and was tightly controlled by Roy Stryker who ran the agency, undermining any independence of the photographers involved.
Stryker set out guidelines for what kind of images were required, demanding “images of young men and women who work in factories… women sewing… picnics”. He reportedly punched holes through around 100,000 negatives that didn’t fit his agenda.
But several of the 15 photographers involved (who included Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee and Arthur Rothstein) maintained their own agendas.
Evans used the opportunity of working for the FSA to cover his costs to fulfil his own projects.
Rather than showing the positive spirit expected by Stryker, Evans’s images tended to emphasise poverty and class division. Evans wanted to document small town life in the US, attempting to conserve the details that would disappear in an ever-changing culture.
Although the FSA gained ownership of the images taken during the time he was contracted to them, Evans was also able to use them as he wished. His photography of the mid-1930s is most interestingly seen in the form that he planned in the book American Photographs.
Instead of arranging the images in a chronological order or grouping together images according to stated themes or regions as might be expected in a documentary project, American Photographs puts Evans’s images together in an almost literary fashion.
The images are placed in a montage series that creates narrative and meanings that could not be so effectively achieved in singular images.
Evans was drawn to elements that other photographers ignored, such as signs, advertising and graffiti.
Many of his images include text in these forms, helping to construct meaning.
In one series of images we first see the sparse interior of a run down farmhouse, on the wall a sign reads, “The Lord will provide”.
On the next page a poorly dressed young girl is pictured in a yard. An image of a well dressed woman follows, providing sharp contrast. The next page shows the interior of the home of a preacher, making a connection to the religious message seen in the previous image.
Working with reporter James Agee, Evans spent three weeks photographing sharecropper families in Alabama. These images were commissioned by Fortune magazine, which rejected the results, but the work was eventually published in the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.
Evans often commented on communities and society by photographing detailed studies of buildings, townscapes and interiors.
This approach may be considered detached. Rather than concentrating on human emotions as photographers like Dorothea Lange did while documenting the depression (you may have seen her famous picture, Migrant Mother), Evans concentrated on architectural detail.
However, images such as the industrial chimneys of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, dominating the workers’ graveyard have great impact.
The Hayward exhibition is a great opportunity to see such influential work in many venues across the country, but make sure you look at the images in Evans’s books too.
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