Walker Evans (1903-75) was an American photographer who had previously worked for the USA Farm Security Administration taking, among other images, photographs of the people with their complete awareness, to show the lives of the farmers in the Depression. He went on to produce the book Let Us Now praise Famous Men together with the writer James Agee, which described, in detail, the lives of farmers in Alabama. He then had a major exhibition in The Museum of Modern Art American Photographs accompanied by a book of the same name which showed what had been described as a portrait of America of that time showing the ‘the tangible expressions of American desires, despairs, and traditions’ (Metmuseum.org, 2004).
Between 1938 and 1941 Walker Evans took a series of portraits of people on the New York City subway. Unlike his previous images these were taken covertly. Evans used a set-up where he blacked out his camera, strapped it under his coat and allowed the lens to show out between the buttons. He then threaded a release cable down his sleeve into his hand. Using this method, he took a series of images of people at close range, he was often sitting opposite them and able to observe them in their private and unguarded moments. Evans said “The guard is down, and the mask is off, even more than when in lone bedrooms (where there are mirrors). People’s faces are in naked repose down in the subway” (Metmusuem.org, 2004). These images were eventually published in a book Many are Called in 1966. The book was reissued in 2004 associated with an exhibition and is discussed in an interview with Jeff Rosenheim which is available at:
Rosenheim says, ‘The pictures work intimately because you feel Evans sitting there…the other passengers could probably tell this guy was up to something…. some of them are looking at him…. Evans had always been interested in the social facts of his time…. he was trying to understand his time … these pictures, both then and now, was another way of looking at the great struggle by individuals to survive… a true documentary product’ (Ludden, 2004).
The pictures are fascinating. They show true snapshots of life. A person leaning back asleep next to a person leaning forward also apparently asleep. Two women, both looking severe, one clutching a bag, the other with a fur coat, they look as though they are from very different parts of the social spectrum – but both are on the subway. A pair of nuns. A mother holding a bored child. People reading newspapers. Women in fancy hats. With the exception of the number of hats being worn, most of these images could be taken nowadays. People were doing the same thing then while traveling as would happen today, talking, sleeping, reading, controlling the children, clutching the shopping or a handbag. Their expressions are, in Evans’ words ‘naked’. If you take a ride on a crowded train today – would they be as off guard – possibly not on the subway, because of fear of pickpockets, but on a long train journey probably yes.
Nowadays we have long discussions about the ethics of taking pictures covertly. Legally it is allowable, at least in the United Kingdom, although not so in all countries. Everywhere we go pictures are taken, by people, by security cameras, by Google. In Evans’ era this discussion was not open. People in general were aware of the profusion of cameras – but would almost certainly not have consciously thought they would be the subject of an image that would be published, not unless they were already famous. The book and exhibition showing these images was not published until many years later. Was Evans deliberately giving people their privacy as has been suggested, or was that simply that that was the time he wanted to show the image?
References and Sources:
Evans, W. and Agee, J. (2004). Walker Evans – Many are called. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.
Evans, W. and Kirstein, L. (2016). American photographs. New York: The Museum of Modern Art.
Ludden, J. (2004). Many are Called – Walker Evans Subway Photographs. [online] Npr.org. Available at: https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4156233?storyId=4156233&t=1565772143009&t=1566290520744 [Accessed 20 Aug. 2019].
Metmuseum.org. (2004). Walker Evans (1903-1975). [online] Available at: https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/evan/hd_evan.htm [Accessed 20 Aug. 2019].