Theses Doctoral

Frame Work: The Contexts of Walker Evans

Sawyer, Andrew Michael

In 1971, on the eve of his retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, Walker Evans declared his photographs to be “documentary style” rather than documents. “A document has use, whereas art is really useless,” Evans would claim. “Therefore art is never a document, though it certainly can adopt that style.” Yet, the photographer produced the majority of his pictures as documents for various individuals and institutions throughout his life. How, then, does one reconcile this tension between the work of art and its contexts, between the photograph and its various uses, between individual autonomy and the institutions of photography in Evans’s career? This dissertation seeks to elucidate this dichotomy within the changing contexts for photography from the early 1930s to the mid-1970s.
Three chapters focus on key contexts for the production and dissemination of Evans’s work. The Introduction revisits the literature on Evans and the issues of context versus style in the history of photography. The problem of “documentary style” in the 1930s is addressed in Chapter One, which examines the overlooked context of architectural surveys during that decade. Two explores how Evans engaged with mass culture through independent projects, commissioned photo essays, and his job as photographic editor at Fortune magazine from 1948 to 1965. After thirty years of working for magazines, Evans became a professor of photography at Yale University. Three exhumes his role as a theorist and didact, examining how he crafted new interpretations of his photographs and photography that suited the new institutional contexts of the art world. Through both his pictures, writings, and their presentations, Evans continually worked with and against his contexts.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Art History and Archaeology
Thesis Advisors
Hutchinson, Elizabeth West
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
March 24, 2016