The Extraordinary Life of the Mundane


Photograph by: Walker Evans Image Source: The J. Paul Getty Museum

Before photographs of everyday still life objects entered mainstream photography, Walker Evans had already commenced work on this front; as a matter of fact, inspired photographers that came after him to look at the mundane with a renewed vigour. Evans is perhaps one of the greatest documentary photographers in the history of the medium. He was inspired by two other stalwarts, Eugène Atget and August Sanders, who imbibed qualities of straightforward documentation in their work; a characteristic that Evans assimilated in his photographs as well.

Evans, considered as a people photographer, for his extensive documentation of sharecroppers for the Farm Security Administration, and his collaboration with the journalist, James Agee, in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, also took an astute interest in the portrayal of home interiors and its objects. This branched out to signboards, garbage, even common tools. The latter, a series of photographs that he made during his stint at Fortune, in 1955, were so irrevocably real in their outlook, that it was difficult to tell apart the object from the image. The pictures were devoid of artistic manipulation and honoured the pure utility of the tools. The candour and dignity that Evans exhibited towards the people he photographed was the same that he extended to the inanimate. “I lean toward the enchantment, the visual power of the esthetically rejected subject,” he had said.

If Atget was nostalgic and driven to preserve a version of Paris that was on the verge of collapse, Evans was fascinated and driven towards making sense of a country (the U.S.) that was consumed by capitalism and national identity. It was this that got him to vehemently seek out every item that contributed to this Americanness. The image above—The Cactus Plant, Interior Detail of a Portuguese House, Truro, Massachusetts—is an example of this.

This article originally appeared in the May 2020 issue of Better Photography.