Today we spotlight the life and times of American photographer and photojournalist Walker Evans. Evans is most famous for his Depression Era photos but, of course, there’s much more to his story.
Born in St Louis in 1903, he attended private boarding and college prep schools before studying French Literature at Williams College and dropping out after a year. In 1926, after spending a year in Paris, Evans would go to New York City and begin socializing with the art and literary crowd. His friends included Hart Crane, John Cheever and Lincoln Kirstein.
Evans took up photography around 1928 and by 1930 had a set of photos published in Hart Cranes poetry book “The Bridge”. He would go onto having more images published in 1931 in Lincoln Kirstein’s book on Victorian houses in the Boston area.
In May 1933, Walker Evans arrived in Cuba. He was there on assignment to take photographs for “The Crime of Cuba”, Carlton Beals’ book about the Cuban dictator Gerardo Machado. It was there that Evans met Ernest Hemingway and the 2 quickly became friends. Originally scheduled to be in Cuba for two weeks, Hemingway loaned Evans money to extend his stay another week. Evans recalls, “I had a wonderful time with Hemingway. Drinking every night. He was at loose ends – and he needed a drinking companion, and I filled that role for two weeks.”
Evans photographed the people and social landscape of Cuba under Machados rule. He also took images of the political unrest that existed and helped Hemingway acquire photos from newspaper archives that documented some of the political violence Hemingway described in To Have and Have Not. Fearing that he was being watched by the dictator’s secret police, and that they might confiscate his pictures, gave the prints to Hemingway for safekeeping. Evans would later leave Cuba with 400 negatives but Hemingway would keep the 46 prints that Evans had given him.The prints left with Hemingway were discovered in Havana in 2002.
In 1935, Evans was hired by the R.A. (Resettlement Administration), later called the F.S.A. (Farm Security Administration), to document the workers and architecture of the South. Then, in 1936, he and writer James Agee took an assignment from Fortune magazine for an article about Hale County, Alabama. The magazine did not run the story however, years later, the story was published in the book “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” .
The book chronicles Evans and Agee’s stay with three sharecropper families living in the town of Akron, Alabama during the Great Depression. It tells the story of the hardships endured by the Burroughs, the Tingles and the Fields and gives an in-depth, heart wrenching tale of life during the Depression.
Fortune magazine would later revisit Hale County, Alabama, 69 years later and publish an article “The Most Famous Story We Never Told”, which included an interview with Charles Burroughs who was just a child when Evans and Agee visited. An excerpt from the article:
It was a big book, a work of wonder and compassion, but definitely not an easy read, filled with bewildering passages and baffling digressions, plus it was late. The war was on, the Depression was finished. Only about 600 copies were sold, and despite critic Lionel Trilling’s declaration that it was “the most realistic and important moral effort of our generation,” it passed quickly out of print. A decade went by, then another. In 1960–three years after Agee’s alcohol-accelerated death by heart attack at 45 and two years after his posthumously published novel, A Death in the Family, won the Pulitzer Prize–Famous Men was reissued and found an audience, and entered the canon of American literary masterpieces.
After the book, around 1938, Evans would begin photographing people in the NYC subway, hiding the camera under his coat. The subway photos would be published in a book titled, “Many are Called”.
In 1945, Walker Evans became a staff writer at Time magazine and then a short time later, an editor at Fortune until 1965. That year, he became a professor of photography on the faculty for Graphic Design at the Yale University School of Art.
Walker Evans passed away in 1975 at his home in New Haven, Connecticut. In 1995, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NY became the sole copyright holder for all works of art in all media by Walker Evans. (With the exception of about 1000 negatives Evans produced for the Resettlement Administration and the Farm Security Administration). Evans’s RA / FSA works are in the public domain.
Yesterday we uncovered Ansel Adams’ life from his childhood to approx. 1930. In part 2 of our interview, we’ll discuss his success in the decades that followed.
Photography Zen: Welcome back Ansel, are you ready to continue?
Ansel Adams: (smiles) Sure, Fire away!
PZ: So, it’s 1930, you’ve decided to pursue a career in photography as opposed to the piano, your first portfolio was a success, what happens next?
AA: Between 1929 and 1942, I’d say my work matured and I became more established. In the course of my 60-year career, the 1930s were a particularly productive and experimental time. I expanded my works, focusing on detailed close-ups as well as large forms from mountains to factories. My first book Taos Pueblo was published in 1930 with text by writer Mary Hunter Austin. In New Mexico, I was introduced to notables such as painter Georgia O’Keeffe, artist John Marin, and photographer Paul Strand. It was my talkative, high-spirited nature combined with my excellent piano playing made me a hit within this circle of artist friends. Strand especially proved influential, sharing secrets of his technique with me, and finally convincing me to pursue photography with all my talent and energy. One of Strand’s suggestions which I adopted was to use glossy paper to intensify tonal values.
PZ: So it appears your career really started taking off at this point.
AA: Very much so. I was able to put on my first solo museum exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution in 1931 through a friend who had connections in Washington, featuring 60 prints taken in the High Sierra. I received an excellent review from the Washington Post that wrote my “photographs are like portraits of the giant peaks, which seem to be inhabited by mythical gods.” Despite my success,I felt that I was not yet up to the standards of Strand. I decided to broaden my subject matter to include still life and close-up photos, and to achieve higher quality by “visualizing” each image before taking it. I emphasized the use of small apertures and long exposures in natural light, which created sharp details with a wide range of focus, as demonstrated in Rose and Driftwood, I think, one of my finest still-life photographs.
PZ: I agree, visually stunning.
AA: I opened my own art and photography gallery in San Francisco in 1933 and I also began to publish essays in photography magazines and wrote my first instructional book Making a Photograph in 1935. During the summers, I often participated in Sierra Club High Trips outings, as a paid photographer for the group, and the rest of the year a core group of the Club members socialized regularly in San Francisco and Berkeley.
PZ: Please, tell us more about your involvement with the Sierra Club.
AA: I began to deploy my photographs in the cause of wilderness preservation. In part, I was inspired by the increasing desecration of Yosemite Valley by commercial development, including a pool hall, bowling alley, golf course, shops, and auto-mobile traffic. I created a limited-edition book Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail in 1938, as part of the Sierra Club’s efforts to secure the designation of Sequoia and Kings Canyon as national parks. This book and my testimony before Congress played a vital role in the success of the effort, and Congress designated the area as a National Park in 1940.
PZ: Generations of people Thank You and will be able to love Yosemite just as you did.
AA: Yosemite Valley, to me, is always a sunrise, a glitter of green and golden wonder in a vast edifice of stone and space. I know of no sculpture, painting or music that exceeds the compelling spiritual command of the soaring shape of granite cliff and dome, of patina of light on rock and forest, and of the thunder and whispering of the falling, flowing waters. At first the colossal aspect may dominate; then we perceive and respond to the delicate and persuasive complex of nature.
PZ: We’re almost finished with the 1930’s, take us up to 1940.
AA: During the balance of the 1930s, I took on many commercial assignments to supplement the income from the struggling Best’s Studio. Really, until the 1970’s, I was financially dependent on commercial projects. Some of my clients included Kodak, Fortune magazine, Pacific Gas and Electric, AT&T, and the American Trust Company. I photographed Timothy L. Pflueger’s new Patent Leather Bar for the St. Francis hotel in 1939. The same year, I was named an editor of U.S. Camera & Travel, the most popular photography magazine at that time.
PZ: Now that we’re in the 1940’s, please tell us what happened in 1941, more specifically, the story about Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico.
AA: On a trip in New Mexico in 1941, I shot a scene of the Moon rising above a modest village with snow-covered mountains in the background, under a dominating black sky. The photograph is one of my most famous and is named Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico. My description in my later books of how it was made probably enhanced the photograph’s fame. The light on the crosses in the foreground was rapidly fading, and I could not find my exposure meter; however, I remembered the luminance of the Moon, and used it to calculate the proper exposure. My earlier account was less dramatic, stating simply that the photograph was made after sunset, with exposure determined using my Weston Master meter. In reality, the foreground was underexposed, the highlights in the clouds were quite dense, and the negative proved difficult to print. The initial publication of Moonrise was in U.S. Camera 1943 annual, after being selected by the “photo judge” for U.S. Camera, Edward Steichen. This gave Moonrise an audience before its first formal exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1944.
(Sidenote: Over nearly 40 years, Adams re-interpreted the image, his most popular by far, using the latest darkroom equipment at his disposal, making over 1,300 unique prints, most in 16″ by 20″ format.Many of the prints were made in the 1970s, finally giving Adams financial independence from commercial projects. The total value of these original prints exceeds $25,000,000 the highest price paid for a single print of Moonrise reached $609,600 at Sotheby’s New York auction in 2006.)
PZ: There’s more to the Moonrise story.
AA: Yes. In September 1941, I contracted with the Department of the Interior to make photographs of National Parks, Indian reservations, and other locations for use as mural-sized prints for decoration of the Department’s new building. Part of my understanding with the Department was that I might also make photographs for my own use, using my own film and processing. Although I kept meticulous records of my travel and expenses, I was less disciplined about recording the dates of my images, and neglected to note the date of Moonrise, so it was not clear whether it belonged to me or to the U.S. Government. But the position of the moon allowed the image to eventually be dated from astronomical calculations, and it was determined that Moonrise was made on November 1, 1941, a day for which I had not billed the Department, so the image belonged to me. The same was not true for many of my other negatives, including The Tetons and the Snake River, which, having been made for the Mural Project, became the property of the U.S. Government.
PZ: Incredible. We could probably spend an hour just discussing that. Anything else in the 1940’s you’d like to mention?
AA: Yes. In 1945, I was asked to form the first fine art photography department at the San Francisco Art Institute. I invited Dorothea Lange, Imogen Cunningham and Edward Weston to be guest lecturers and Minor White to be lead instructor. The photography department produced numerous notable photographers, including Philip Hyde, Benjamen Chinn, Bill Heick, and C. Cameron Macauley.
PZ: So take us through the 1950’s. Your success shows no signs of slowing down.
AA: In 1952 I was one of the founders of the magazine Aperture, which was intended as a serious journal of photography showcasing its best practitioners and newest innovations. I was also a contributor to Arizona Highways, a photo-rich travel magazine. My article on Mission San Xavier del Bac, with text by my longtime friend Nancy Newhall, was enlarged into a book published in 1954. This was the first of many collaborations with her. In June 1955, I also began my annual workshops, teaching thousands of students until 1981. I continued with commercial assignments for another twenty years, and became a consultant on a monthly retainer for Polaroid Corporation, which was founded by good friend Edwin Land. I made thousands of photographs with Polaroid products, El Capitan, Winter, Sunrise being the one he considered my most memorable.
PZ: What was in store for you during the 60’s and 70’s?
AA: In the 1960s, a few mainstream art galleries which originally would have considered photos unworthy of exhibit alongside fine paintings decided to show my images, particularly the former Kenmore Gallery in Philadelphia. In March 1963, Nancy Newhall and I accepted a commission from Clark Kerr, the president of the University of California, to produce a series of photographs of the University’s campuses to commemorate its centennial celebration. The collection, titled Fiat Lux after the University’s motto, was published in 1967 and now resides in the Museum of Photography at the University of California, Riverside. In 1974, I had a major retrospective exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Much of my time during the 1970s was spent curating and reprinting negatives from my vault, in part to satisfy the great demand of art museums which had finally created departments of photography and desired my works. I also devoted my considerable writing skills and prestige to the cause of environmentalism, focusing particularly on the Big Sur coastline of California and the protection of Yosemite from overuse. President Jimmy Carter commissioned me to make the first official portrait of a president made by a photograph. That year I also cofounded the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona.
(I begin to see Mr Adams getting tired, I decide to finish the interview)
PZ: Ansel, you’ve live quite a remarkable life. Your influence in photography and your contributions to environmentalism will be appreciated for generations to come. I want to Thank You for your time and sharing your story with us.
AA: It was my pleasure. I am always happy to chat.
Good Day Zensters and new readers! On this very special edition of Photography Zen, we’d like to welcome, arguably one of the most famous photographers of our time, Mr. Ansel Adams.
Photography Zen: Mr. Adams, it’s a great pleasure to have you here, I know your time is valuable so I won’t keep you long. We can proceed when you’re ready.
Ansel Adams: Please, call me Ansel. Don’t worry, I have all the time in the world.
PZ: Thank you Ansel. I know a lot of the readers are familiar with your work but know very little about you. Let’s begin with your childhood. Where were you born?
AA: I was born in 1902 in the Western Addition neighborhood of San Francisco. When I was 5 we moved to Seacliff, which is just south of the Presidio Army Base. We had a splendid view of the Golden Gate and the Marin Headlands.
PZ: Sounds beautiful. So, the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, you were there.
AA: *chuckles* Yes, I was. One of my earliest memories was watching the smoke from the ensuing fire that destroyed much of the city a few miles to the east. I was uninjured in the initial shaking, but was tossed face-first into a garden wall during an aftershock three hours later, breaking and scarring my nose. A doctor recommended that my nose be reset once he reached maturity, but as you can see, it still remains crooked.
PZ: Wow, incredible! Tell us more about your childhood. Did you play sports? Did you have many friends??
AA: I was a hyperactive child and prone to frequent sickness and I really had few friends. Our family home and surroundings on the heights facing the Golden Gate provided ample childhood activities. I actually had no patience for games or sports, but I took to the beauty of nature at an early age, collecting bugs and exploring Lobos Creek all the way to Baker Beach and the sea cliffs leading to Lands End. I remember my father bought a three-inch telescope and we enthusiastically shared the hobby of amateur astronomy, visiting the Lick Observatory on Mount Hamilton together. My father went on to serve as the paid secretary-treasurer of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific from 1925 to 1950.
PZ: How about school? Were you a good student?
AA: *chuckles again* I was dismissed from several private schools for being restless and inattentive, so my father decided to pull me out of school in 1915 at the age of 12. I was then educated by private tutors, my Aunt Mary, and my father.
PZ: So, at age 12, did you already know you wanted to be a photographer?
AA: Actually, I became interested in piano at age 12, and music became the main focus of my later youth. For the next twelve years, the piano was my primary occupation and, by 1920, my intended profession. Although I ultimately gave up music for photography, the piano brought substance, discipline, and structure to my frustrating and erratic youth. The careful training and exacting craft required of a musician profoundly informed my visual artistry, as well as my writings and teachings on photography.
PZ: When did you get your first camera?
AA: I first visited Yosemite National Park in 1916 with my family. The splendor of Yosemite burst upon us and it was glorious. One wonder after another descended upon us. There was light everywhere. A new era began for me. My father gave me my first camera during that stay, a Kodak Brownie box camera, and I took my first photographs with my “usual hyperactive enthusiasm”.
PZ: What happened after that?
AA: I returned to Yosemite on my own the following year with better cameras and a tripod. In the winter, I learned basic darkroom technique working part-time for a San Francisco photo finisher. I avidly read photography magazines, attended camera club meetings, and went to photography and art exhibits. I explored the High Sierra in summer and winter with retired geologist and amateur ornithologist Francis Holman, whom I called “Uncle Frank,” developing the stamina and skill needed to photograph at high elevation and under difficult weather conditions.
PZ: That takes us to 1917. You were still considering piano as a career choice at this point?
AA: Very much so. While in Yosemite, I had frequent contact with the Best family, owners of Best’s Studio, who allowed me to practice on their old square piano. In summer, I would enjoy a life of hiking, camping, and photographing, and the rest of the year I worked to improve my piano playing, expanding my piano technique and musical expression. I also gave piano lessons for extra income, finally affording a grand piano suitable to my musical ambitions.
PZ: At what point did you know photography would be your future??
AA: My first photographs were published in 1921, and Best’s Studio began selling my Yosemite prints the following year. At this point, however, I was still planning a career in music, even though I felt that my small hands limited my repertoire. It took seven more years for me to conclude that, at best, I might only become a concert pianist of limited range, an accompanist, or a piano teacher.
PZ: It seems you were pretty confident you’d be successful as a photographer.
AA: In 1927, I produced my first portfolio in my new style Parmelian Prints of the High Sierras, which included my now famous image, Monolith, the Face of Half Dome, taken with my Korona view camera using glass plates and a dark red filter, to heighten the tonal contrasts. On that excursion, I had only one plate left and I visualized the effect of the blackened sky before risking the last shot. I had been able to realize a desired image- not the way the subject appeared in reality but how it felt to me and how it must appear in the finished print. My photographs had now reached a stage when they were worthy of the world’s critical examination. I had suddenly come upon a new style which I believed would place my work equal to anything of its kind.
PZ: And that they did Mr Ada…I mean Ansel, That they did. So your first portfolio was a success??
AA: My first portfolio was a success, earning nearly $3,900 with the sponsorship and promotion of Albert Bender, an arts-connected businessman. Soon I received commercial assignments to photograph the wealthy patrons who bought my portfolio. I also came to understand how important it was that my carefully crafted photos were reproduced to best effect. At Bender’s invitation, I joined the Roxburghe Club, an association devoted to fine printing and high standards in book arts. I learned much about printing techniques, inks, design, and layout which I later applied to other projects. Unfortunately, at that time most of my darkroom work was still being done in the basement of my parents’ home, and I was limited by barely adequate equipment.
PZ: So that brings us to about 1930. This seems like a good place to take a break. Would you like to have some lunch?
The inspiration for the 1992 movie “The Public Eye” starring Joe Pesci, Weegee was every bit as colorful as Hollywood portrayed.
Born Usher Fellig in Zloczew, Austria (now Zolochiv, Ukraine) in 1899, Fellig emigrated to the U.S. with his family in 1909 and moved to the Lower East Side of Manhattan. It was there he changed his name to Arthur because it sounded more American. Self-taught, Fellig took many odd jobs as a photographer and photographers assistant. In 1924 he became a darkroom technician and part time news photographer and at Acme Newspictures which later on became United Press International Photos (UPI).
In 1935, Arthur Fellig decided to become a freelance photographer, says Fellig:
“In my particular case I didn’t wait ’til somebody gave me a job or something, I went and created a job for myself—freelance photographer. And what I did, anybody else can do. What I did simply was this: I went down to Manhattan Police Headquarters and for two years I worked without a police card or any kind of credentials. When a story came over a police teletype, I would go to it. The idea was I sold the pictures to the newspapers. And naturally, I picked a story that meant something.”
Arthur Fellig would soon become known as Weegee, the phonetic pronunciation of the word Ouija, because of his uncanny ability to often appear at crime scenes before the authorities. His photos were soon published by the Herald Tribune, World-Telegram, Daily News, New York Post, New York Journal American, Sun, and others. Weegee worked at night, developing his photos in the darkroom he set up in the back of his car in order to expedite getting his photos to the waiting press. He also had a great feel for what photos sold best.
“Names make news. There’s a fight between a drunken couple on Third Avenue or Ninth Avenue in Hell’s Kitchen, nobody cares. It’s just a barroom brawl. But if society has a fight in a Cadillac on Park Avenue and their names are in the Social Register, this makes news and the papers are interested in that”
“Crime was my oyster,” Weegee wrote in his 1961 memoir, “Weegee by Weegee.” “I was friend and confidant to them all. The bookies, madams, gamblers, call girls, pimps, con men, burglars and jewel fencers.”
Weegee’s peak period as a freelance crime and street photographer ran from the mid-1930s into the postwar years. He took thousands of photographs that defined Manhattan as a nightscape of hoodlums and gangsters, Bowery bums and tenement dwellers and victims of domestic disturbance, fires and car crashes. Aptly, he named it “The Naked City”. Weegee became a celebrity in his own right even creating a rubber stamp that he used to sign his photos that read “Credit Photo by Weegee the Famous”.
By the early 1940’s, Weegee was beginning to achieve success outside the mainstream media when in 1941, The Photo League in New York held and exhibition of his work and later in 1945 with an exhibit in the Museum of Modern Art. Weegee published 3 books of his work in the later 1940’s and his book “Naked City” inspired the movie “The Naked City” in 1947 which prompted him to move to Hollywood.
Weegee mingled with the Hollywood crowd, getting a couple of bit parts in small films, but by 1951, he was back in NY. Until his death in 1968, he spent his time experimenting with trick photography and distortions. He also toured the United States and Europe giving lectures and relishing in his fame.
In 2007, realtor John Maloof, purchased a box of old negatives at auction, hoping to find vintage photos of his old Portage Park neighborhood in Chicago. He later bought more negatives along with rolls of film, 8mm movies and other documents. In total, he collected more than 100,000 negatives and a few thousand rolls of film. in 2009, searching through the boxes he found an envelope with the name Vivian Maier and after a google search he discovered that she had passed away just a few days earlier.
Two years prior to her death, Vivian Maier had failed to keep up payments on her storage unit and as a result, the contents were sold off at auction and sold to 3 different buyers. Maloof owns approximately 90% of Maier’s work including negatives, film, movies, and audio recordings. Realizing that these photos were good, he posted some of them on a blog in 2008 and received very little response. In 2009, he posted them again on Flickr and soon he was flooded with comments and emails. The photos went viral. Vivian Maier was born.
Vivian Maier worked as a nanny between the years of 1950-1990. Her first 17 years in Chicago she worked for two families, the Gensburgs and the Raymonds. She also spent time in the 1970’s as a housekeeper for Phil Donahue. According to the families in later interviews, Vivian spent all her off time taking photos with her Rolleiflex camera, often bringing the children along with her. She never married and reportedly never even received a personal phone call.
In 1959-1960, Maier took a trip around the world photographing places like Egypt, Syria, Italy, Bangkok, Manila, Beijing and Shanghai. The trip was probably funded by the sale of the family farm in France.
Untitled, Undated, New York, NY
She photographed the rich, the poor, men, women and children. Maier didn’t care if you were dressed in heels or barefoot, young or old. She captured everything. Her work is a stunning visual history of yesteryear. Vivian Maier did not even see most of the photos she captured and almost never showed her work. The pictures “only needed to be made.”
Since the discovery of Maier’s photographs, she has attracted worldwide attention in the media and photography world. Her work is on display in gallery exhibits, the subject of several books and two documentaries. In 2014, a legal case was filed to determine the ownership rights to her estate.
For more on the Vivian Maier story, watch “Finding Vivian Maier”, the Academy Award Winning documentary on the life and discovery of Ms Maier.
Heavy statement from someone that shot combat scenes. I think when he refers to getting “closer”, he meant get more absorbed into the image, more visceral. This will in turn, make you better understand the force of what you are capturing and the essentia of your surroundings.
My favorite advice to anyone that’ll listen me is to spend couple of weeks just shooting with a 50mm lens. (35mm if you’re shooting cropped sensors). This just about forces you to get closer to your subject and not rely on telephoto lenses. Not only with this build your self-confidence but will help you in your composition and your ability to “feel” the shot. Use your legs, get in there, absorb the energy. If done correctly, it will manifest itself in your image. This is what Capa was talking about. You’re a storyteller and artist. Flaunt that in your images.
Once you understand the significance of Capa’s quote, your photography will improve. Keep it in mind the whenever you’re out shooting, let it become second nature. Think of it as a gift.
Although Capa said he was finished with war, in the early 1950’s he accepted an assignment for Life in Southeast Asia to cover the Indochina War. On May 25th, 1954, he accompanied a French regiment along with two other Time-Life journalists. While the regiment was approaching a hostile area under fire, he decided to leave the Jeep and go further up the road to photograph the advance. As he travelled up the road, he was killed after stepping on a land mine.
Profound. Read it again, “Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.” I’d like to use it as a talking point to discuss artistic development in photography.
Cartier-Bresson was not obsessed with the technical aspects of photography, his obsession was capturing the moment.“Sharpness is a bourgeois concept,” he once said, so having the latest and greatest equipment was of no concern to him. His statement refers to practice and developing an artistic eye and developing the intuition of capturing that moment.
I’ve literally taken thousands of photos, many of those shot back in the days of film, where you might shoot a couple of rolls a week. These days, 10,000 photos is nothing. Looking back at some of my earliest images, it’s interesting to see my own personal artistic development and how far I’ve advanced. Photography is a lot more than taking a sharp, well exposed image, it’s about capturing a moment in time and being a storyteller. Henri Cartier-Bresson was a master at this.
There is no substitute for experience, get out there and shoot. Evaluate, shoot again. Grow, develop your own style. Reflect on where you came from and watch your progress.