Walker Evans: Many Are Called

They are members of every race and nation of the earth. They are of all ages, of all temperaments, of all classes, of almost every imaginable occupation. Each is incorporate in such an intense and various concentration of human beings as the world has never known before. Each, also, is an individual existence, as matchless as a thumbprint or a snowflake. —James Agee

It is well known that in the mid ‘30’s James Agee and Walker Evans produced together LET US NOW PRAISE FAMOUS MEN, a remarkable account of three Alabama Tenant farmers and their families, in which Evans’ photographs served as an introduction to Agee’s text. Few know that about the same time Evans produced another series of photographs of people in New York City’s subways, and that in 1940 Agee wrote an introduction for a collection of these portraits, thus in a manner reversing the roles the two men had played in their earlier collaboration. Of these photographs John Szarkowski has written, “In 1938 and 1941 Evans made his secret series of anonymous subway riders. This collection constitutes a kind of virtuoso piece, in which the photographer knowingly sacrificed all of his basic controls except one. To make these pictures by the feeble light of the subway cars, Evans sat in what he later called the swaying sweatbox for hundreds of hours, riding to nowhere, with the lens of a Contax camera peering from between two buttons of his topcoat, and his eyes focused on the bench opposite. He had to forego the freedom to choose his angle of view, the control of precise framing, the selection of light, the free choice or direction of his subjects. All that remained was the freedom to say yes or no- to squeeze the cable release hidden in his sleeve or not. The almost absolute lack of “purely visual” interest in this series provide an appropriate setting for the astonishing individuality of Evans’ subjects and their fellow riders- an individuality not so much of their roles and stations as of their secrets.” The “rawness” of these subway pictures was a radical departure from all photographic conventions at that time and was to influence a future generation of photographers, most notably Robert Frank. The exhibition is composed entirely of vintage prints, made by Evans’ own hand. The photographs have not been seen since the Museum of Modern Art’s 1966 Exhibition, “Walker Evans’ Subway.”