The 1930s was a career-defining decade for American photographer Walker Evans. That same decade—the tumultuous interlude between World War I and World War II—was marked by a global economic collapse known as the Great Depression. In the United States alone, millions of workers lost their jobs and were chronically unemployed, and devastating dust storms made it impossible to grow or harvest crops in the American heartland. In 1938, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, opened American Photographs, its first one-person photography exhibition featuring Evans’s avant-garde documentation of the Depression years. His direct yet subtle and sensual way of photographing people and their everyday surroundings was as admired by his contemporaries as by the generations of artists to follow. Years earlier, in 1926, the young Evans had abandoned his study of French literature at Williams College in Massachusetts to spend a year in Paris, where he studied French and explored his aptitude for writing, both fiction and nonfiction. After returning home to New York City in 1927, he soon began to explore the medium of photography and the aesthetics of modernism, though the tide of social realism provoked his most innovative and poetic documentary work. Evans accepted a government position with the Resettlement Administration (later called the Farm Security Administration), alongside other photographers such as Dorothea Lange, to photograph the conditions of poverty and the effects of social welfare programs across Depression- era America. Evans, however, was an itinerant, wayward photographer who was more driven by his own artistic vision than by any government mandate.
Evans left the Resettlement Administration and, while on assignment in Alabama for Fortune magazine in 1936, he and writer James Agee documented the time they spent there living with three tenant farm families. These families rented and cultivated small tracts of land owned by someone else in order to receive a share of the earnings or the crops at harvest time, typically a cotton harvest in Alabama. Under this system, tenant farmers often became trapped in a cycle of debt and fears of eviction in the event of crop failure, low market prices, or other misfortunes. Although the magazine’s editors ultimately rejected Evans’s and Agee’s collaborative work, the two men persevered, and in 1941 published their own 500 page volume, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Evans’s photographs were set apart as a stark visual prelude at the beginning of the book in contrast to the intense flourish of Agee’s writing that followed. The Biennale di Venezia presents the entire first edition of those unmediated photographs, which relay the quiet integrity of those who endured the economic depression of 1930s America and evoke analogous poverty and economic inequality across the world today.