Tag Archives: Walker Evans

Journeys – 2

In the mid-20th Century the mindset appears to have changed. There are still many photographers who travel and take the sort of images described in Journeys – 1.  But there are a group who travel for different reasons. Some travel just to look (and take photographs along the way). Some travel to tell stories about the places, not just the famous places and the rich people but the ordinary places, the ordinary lives, the little things.

Many of the American photographers have been motivated by a road trip. It became easier with the advent of cars and lighter weight equipment available from the early to mid-20th century. The start of this was probably the travelling done with the FSA by Lange and Evans among others. Evans turned his work into the show at MoMA and then the accompanying book American Photographs. (Evans, 2012) He then accompanied Robert Frank on his American trip to make the photo-book The Americans. This was first published in 1959. Jim Casper said, ‘This is the photo book that redefined what a photo book could be – personal, poetic, real’ and quoted Kerouac (who wrote the introduction) as saying ‘Robert Frank… he sucked a sad poem right out of America onto film’ (Casper, s.d.). Unfortunately, this is a book I have not seen in its entirety. The images I have seen are stunning. I particularly enjoy looking at Funeral – St Helena, South Carolina, 1955 which shows a group of black Americans standing by the cars. Are they participants? Or chauffeurs?

© Estate of Robert Frank

All the photographers mentioned so far worked in black and white. Stephen Shore chose to move into colour for his book Uncommon Places (Shore, 2014). In many ways it is similar to the work of William Eggleston. Shore also shows small, inconsequential places, untidy crossroads, cars and diners which add up to an image of America in the 70’s. The images that I have seen are objective. The light is clear. A single image is interesting but unclear as to purpose. Looking at a string of them, they build up to tell the story of a particular place – America and a particular time – 1970’s.

3 shore
© Stephen Shore

More recently Alec Soth has travelled the Mississippi and shows the people and places in the early 21st Century. He also utilises the ordinary things of life. Many of his images are vividly coloured. I find the one Fort Jefferson Memorial Cross, Wickliffe, KY, 2002 particularly amusing. It shows four workmen standing around by a decrepit car. One carries a chainsaw. Are they tidying up the surroundings? Or planning to cut the cross down? In today’s climate the latter is entirely possible. Another Bonnie, Port Gibson, MS, 2000 shows a proud lady, seated, showing off her picture of sky and trees in an elaborate gold frame. The type of frame I associate with a museum piece, possibly a portrait in jewel colours.

© Alec Soth

It is not only the Americans who have chosen to use the metaphor of a journey to tell about a place. There are (at least) three books on the rivers in China.

Yan Wang Preston’s Mother River (Preston, 2018) tells the story of a journey along the Yangtze, from source to mouth about 6300 kilometres. She identified points every 100 kilometres along its length and went as nearly as possible to each of these points to photograph whatever she found. She made no attempt to take images at any famous way points unless they happened to fall on one of her predetermined markers. The series traces the social and geographic changes along the river. At one point she was bitten by a dog, at another refused access as (illegal) gold mining was taking place. As part of the project she did a series of performances though which she thought about the locality and the myth of a mother river. For example, she made a hand-drawn red circle, she carved stones and swam in the river. The images themselves vary from stunning landscapes, bleak and desolate, to snatches of dust laden roads. Where she could not reach the spot, she has included a blank page in the book. Sometimes she shows the people, playing pool, lounging in boats. She makes no attempt to prettify the scenes. It is what it is. You travel from the mountains, though plains and cities to the sea.

Y25-1 preston
Y25 – © Yan Wang Preston

The Yellow River has recently been photographed by Zhang Kechun, where he shows a series of images that contrast the massive countryside with (usually) tiny people. In his description of the series he says ‘Mountains and rivers are very significant for the Chinese people. In this country there is a cultural awareness that says mountains are “virtuous” and rivers are “moral” …..I decided to take a walk along the Yellow River in order to find the root of my soul (Kechun, s.d.).

zhang kechun
© Zhang Kechun

The Yangtze has also been photographed by Nadav Kandar who also chose to show humans as small against the vast surroundings. He is aware of the speed of change occurring in China, the beginning of a new era, the ‘smallness of the individual’ (Kandar, s.d.). He, like Kechun and Preston, has taken images of places that have been since changed beyond recognition by construction work.

© Navad Kandar

These three works on China are talking about travelling, about change, about finding yourself against the backdrop of a vast land. They are almost the opposite of the American series discussed above. The immense versus the small, the country versus the individual. The impersonal versus the personal. Preston comes nearest to linking them with her images of the people she finds on the way, the bedrooms and eating places.

There are as many ways of photographing journeys as there are photographers who are willing to undertake them. These are a small snapshot, and mainly of   the epic journeys. The ones that take years, and multiple visits. Small and private journeys can be equally revealing of the place, the people, and the photographer. In Echo Mask (Levitt, 2019) Jonathan Levitt shows images, mostly black and white with a few colour, interspersed with blocks of text that read as prose poems. They were taken in the Maritime Northeast of Maine and Newfoundland.  Many of the images are blurry. They evoke a mood. A memory.  They tell a different type of story, but it is also a journey, this time in the mind.

563_img_3439 jonathan
© Jonathan Levitt

The work of Paul Gaffney in We Make the Path By Walking is also a slow meditation on time and space. He talks about the experience of moving slowly though the countryside, being in a ‘continuous dialogue’ with it.  His latest work Perigee was made at night, under moonlight having previously documented his travels by Polaroid. In an interview for ASX Gaffney talks about the difference between the western approach to landscape as a linear perspective rather than the Eastern approach of trying to get across the essence of the place (Shinkle, 2016).  His images are superficially simple. But the longer you look the more you see. This is something I would want to be able to do.

Paul Gaffney -Perigee – Polaroids – © Paul Gaffney


Casper, J. (s.d.) The Americans – Photographs by Robert Frank. At: https://www.lensculture.com/articles/robert-frank-the-americans (Accessed 22/07/2020).

Evans, W. (2012) American photographs. (75th-anniversary ed ed.) New York, NY: Museum of Modern Art.

Kandar, N. (s.d.) Yangtze: The Long River. At: https://www.lensculture.com/articles/nadav-kander-yangtze-the-long-river (Accessed 24/07/2020).

Kechun, Z. K. | (s.d.) The Yellow River. At: https://www.lensculture.com/articles/zhang-kechun-the-yellow-river (Accessed 24/07/2020).

Levitt, J. (2019) Echo mask. Turkey: Charcoal Press.

Preston, Y. W. (2018) Mother River. Ostfildern: Hatje/Cantz.

Shinkle, E. (2016) An Interview with Paul Gaffney. At: https://americansuburbx.com/2016/04/an-interview-with-paul-gaffney.html (Accessed  25/07/2020).

Shore, S. (2014) Uncommon places: the complete works. (2nd revised edition) (s.l.): Thames and Hudson.






Assignment 2 – Anything You Can Do


The objective of this assignment is to provide you with an opportunity to explore the themes covered in Part Two with regard to the use of both studio and location for the creation of portraits.

This assignment is about taking what has worked from the above exercises and then trying to develop this further in terms of interchanging the use of portraits taken on location (street) with portraits taken inside (studio).

You need to develop a series of five final images to present to the viewer as a themed body of work. Pay close attention to the look and feel of each image and think of how they will work together as a series. The theme is up to you to choose; you could take a series of images of a single subject or a series of subjects in a themed environment. There is no right answer, so experiment.

One of the possibilities I thought about for assignment 2 was to take images of people within their own house, using artificial lighting. My final choice of subject involves this. The room has become the studio. This contrasts with my earlier images for this section which were almost all taken outside with natural light.


I looked at several photographers portrait work for this including Martin Parr, Christophe Agou, Paul Graham, and Walker Evans and also researched work done taking images of people with disabilities such as Louis Quail  in ‘Big Brother’,  Siân Davey with her work on her Down Syndrome daughter in ‘Alice’, Polly Bradon’s work with the learning disabled and people with ASD  in  ‘Out of the Shadows ‘  and ‘Great Interactions’ and Lesley McIntyre’s photoessay on the life of her daughter ‘The Time of Her Life’.  I also looked at Diane Arbus’s somewhat controversial work where she took images in a home for learning disabled people (Diane Arbus).  There is a harrowing film series done by David Hevey on disability which uses the contrasting images of then and now, to tell a part of the story about disability: see David Hevey – The Disabled Century for more information.

Taking pictures of people who are aware of you is discussed further in Project 2 – The aware and Project 2 – The Aware – 2. Most of the work that I found about people with disabilities either involved people with a learning disability, severe mental health problems, or severe physical difficulties.

Background Information:

This series is about a couple who both have autistic spectrum disorder (ASD). This is a condition (I refuse to call it a disability) that I have worked with for many years and, if I have learned anything, I have learned that the people with ASD and their families are not defined by the label. Each person’s story is different, each family’s story is unique, just as for any other person and any other family. To tell the story properly takes time, a lifetime, both yours and theirs. This is just a snapshot.


For this series I took images of a couple with autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) and their young child. Janey and Rich were kind enough to invite me into their home and give me permission to use the images.  Unlike most of the work on people with disabilities looked at above neither of them has a learning disability.  Janey is an author, rarely seen without a pencil and a notebook, and Rich works with computers. Their motto is ‘Anything you can do we can do too’ – although, as Janey went on to explain, that does not include working at a busy supermarket till ( but who would really want to do that from choice).


  • I met Janey and Rich in their home. It was the first time I had met Rich, so he was naturally somewhat guarded with me, although eventually relaxed. We spent some time talking and then I simply started taking pictures of their interactions with each other, me and their baby. One of the difficulties people with ASD have is with eye contact, especially with strangers and this is evident in all the images.
  • I used a combination of natural light, the artificial light in their flat and a flash unit.
  • I visualised these images from the start in black and white, partly because it echoed much of the earlier work I had seen and partly because it gives a softer light and timeless feel to the images.


This was a fascinating piece of work to do. It fits within a much longer work I am planning about the lives of people with ASD and that of their families. I am planning to mainly concentrate on work with adults with ASD as little has been done photographically with this group.

The difficulties were:

  • Working inside with limited light
  • Allowing enough time for the family to relax without being there so long that I risked overwhelming them

The positive aspects:

  • Building a relationship
  • Exploring a new (to me) type of way of working



Learning points:

  • Be confident that you can do things
  • Relax and the subjects will also relax
  • Take enough images to allow for problems with the light

With sincere thanks to Janey and Rich.

Reference list:

Arbus, D. et al. (1978) Diane Arbus. London: Gordon Fraser Gallery.

Braden, P. (2016) Great interactions : life with learning disabilities and autism. Stockport: Dewi Lewis Publishing.

Bradon, P. and Williams, S. (2018) Out of the Shadows. Stockport: Dewi Lewis Publishing.

Hevey, D. (s.d.) Viewing. At: http://davidhevey.com/viewing/ (Accessed on 6 April 2020)

Mcintyre, L. (2004) The time of her life. London: Jonathan Cape.

Quail, L. (2018) Big brother. Stockport: Dewi Lewis Publishing.

Siân Davey (2015) Looking for Alice. Great Britain: Trolley Ltd.

Project 1 – The Unaware 1

Taking portraits of people who are unaware of you needs a certainly needs a degree of stealth and a place where there are plenty of people who are engaged in their own thoughts. One of the commonest places for this to be done is on public transport. If you google ‘images of the underground in London’ it becomes obvious that this is a very common place for photographers to take pictures. Many of these are of the underground architecture, others are of general crowd scenes and yet more are portraits, usually taken without the knowledge of the people being photographed, although some are obviously posing for the camera.

The genre probably started with the subway images of Walker Evans, although similar portraits were also taken by Helen Levitt, who was his apprentice, at much the same time. The two of them often went out together as Evans thought that people were less likely to see him taking photos if he was with someone else. Levitt revisited the subject much later in 1978 taking a range of images of similar scenes, this time against a background of graffiti (Silverman, 2017). They can be seen in Manhattan Transit: The Subway Photographs of Helen Levitt.

Helen Levitt
© Helen Levitt

Stefan Rousseau, a London photographer also took images on the London Underground. There is a recent photoessay available on this in which he says ‘Suddenly I became aware of a new world of phone-obsessed, sleep-deprived, makeup-wielding commuters so absorbed in their own world that I felt I had to photograph them. I’m astonished by the skill of the women who are able to apply their makeup while hurtling through tunnels and those who can watch last night’s TV standing up in the smallest of spaces’ (Rousseau, 2019). The whole essay can be accessed at:


Stefan Rousseau
© Stefan Rousseau

Lukas Kuzma is another photographer who has taken pictures on the London Underground in the series Transit (Kuzma, 2015) in which he shows a mixture of images of people, some aware of him, others clearly unaware. Some of his images are amusing, some fascinating, others almost cruel.  Some of his images can be seen on Behance.

Lukas Kuzma
© Lukas Kuzma

For other photographers who work on images taken on public transport see:  Martin Parr Christophe Agou and Walker Evans

Edited 04/11/19:

I have just come across another photographer who worked extensively on the London Underground in the 1970’s. Mike Goldsmith has just produced a book London Underground 1970 – 1980 which shows images from a slightly earlier underground scene, although the people have similar world-weary expressions.  The pictures can be seen at:


© Mike Goldwater – Northern Line 1975

Given the number of articles and relevant photographers I have found in a fairly short exploration of this topic, I suspect that a whole PhD could be written on it.

Reference list

Candid moments on the London Underground. (2019). BBC News. [online] 4 Nov. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/in-pictures-50261478  [Accessed 04 Nov. 2019].

Kuzma, L. (2015). Transit. [online] Behance. Available at: https://www.behance.net/gallery/23661963/Transit [Accessed 1 Oct. 2019].

Levitt, H., Campany, D., Hoshino, M. and Zander, T. (2017). Helen Levitt – Manhattan Transit. Köln Galerie Thomas Zander Köln Verlag Der Buchhandlung Walther König.

Rousseau, S. (2019). Riding the tube – a photo essay by Stefan Rousseau. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2019/mar/29/riding-the-tube-a-photo-essay-by-stefan-rousseau [Accessed 1 Oct. 2019].

Silverman, R. (2017). The Subway Portraits of Helen Levitt. [online] Lens Blog NY Times. Available at: https://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2017/10/12/the-subway-portraits-of-helen-levitt/ [Accessed 20 Aug. 2019].




Walker Evans

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).

Walker Evans
Walker Evans
Walker Evans

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].