Walker Evans, Coal Dock Worker, 1933
“By 1933, Walker Evans had been included in several important group and solo exhibitions, at the Harvard Society of Contemporary Art (1930), the John Becker Gallery (1931), the Julien Levy Gallery (1932), the Brooklyn Museum (1932), and the Museum of Modern Art (1933). His photographs had also been published in art and architectural journals, as well as in two literary publications; three photographs of the Brooklyn Bridge appear in a limited edition of Hart Crane’s poem “The Bridge” (1930), and thirty-one photographs were printed in “The Crime of Cuba” (1933). The latter was an exposé by Carleton Beals of the conditions under which Cubans lived during the oppressive regime of Machado y Morales, a dictatorship covertly supported by the U. S. State Department. Evans neither read the book nor had any interest in its politics: “I simply went around everywhere I could get. I interviewed, and was helped by, Cuban revolutionaries as well as government officials.”
“For the Cuban project Evans spent two to three weeks in Havana, prowling the streets with a folding roll-film camera. While most of the photographs are snapshots, a few, like this portrait, were made on 6 1/2 x 8 1/2-inch sheet film. In 1930, Evans had purchased a tripod and a used box camera still fitted for plates. This camera, with its larger negatives, enabled him to capture more of the subject—its texture and other physical nuances—and to follow the working methods of August Sander and Eugène Atget. Having reviewed their work in 1931 in the avant-garde journal “Hound and Horn,” Evans had absorbed the notion that serious photography was done on glass negatives with cameras that stood on their own feet.
“While in Havana, Evans encountered twelve coal dock workers as he wandered around the port. Fascinated by the colliers’ faces and the black dust enshrouding them, he returned with the box camera to make a series of single and group portraits. Placing the men flat against a plain white wall—a sort of studio backdrop to go along with the studio camera—Evans defined a new genre that lies somewhere between the mug shot and the informal portrait. This man, holding not one but two shovels, was the oldest of the workers and the central figure in all the group portraits. He does not appear in “The Crime of Cuba,” but was later included by Evans in “American Photographs,” the 1938 monograph that accompanied his second exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.”