Born in Saint Louis, Missouri, Walker Evans was part of a well-to-do family. He graduated from Phillips Academy, in Andover, Mass. He studied literature for a year at Williams College before dropping out. After spending a year in Paris, he returned to the United States where he joined literary and art circles in New York City. John Cheever, Hart Crane, and Lincoln Kirstein were among his friends.
Intimidated by the difficulty of writing great prose, Evans turned to photography in 1930. In 1933, he photographed in Cuba on assignment for the publisher of Carleton Beals' then-forthcoming book, The Crime of Cuba, photographing the revolt against the dictator Gerardo Machado. In Cuba, Evans briefly knew Ernest Hemingway.
In 1935, Evans spent two months at first on a fixed-term photographic campaign for the Resettlement Administration (RA) in West Virginia and Pennsylvania. From October on, he continued to do photographic work for the RA and later the Farm Security Administration (FSA), primarily in the Southern states.
Evans continued to work for the FSA until 1938. That year, an exhibition, Walker Evans: American Photographs, was held at The Museum of Modern Art, New York. This was the first exhibition in this museum devoted to the work of a single photographer. The catalogue included an accompanying essay by Lincoln Kirstein, whom Evans had befriended in his early days in New York.
In 1938, Evans also took his first photographs in the New York subway with a camera hidden in his coat. These would come to be collected in a book form in 1966 under the title Many Are Called. In 1938 and 1939, Evans worked with and mentored Helen Levitt.
Later, Evans and writer James Agee were sent by Fortune magazine on assignment to Hale County, Alabama, for a story the magazine subsequently opted not to run. In 1941, Evans' photographs along with Agee's text detailing the duo's journey through rural Appalachia during the Great Depression were published as the groundbreaking book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Its detailed account of three farming families paints a deeply moving portrait of rural poverty. Noting a similarity to the Beals' book, the critic Janet Malcolm pointed out the contradiction between a kind of anguished dissonance in Agee's prose and the quiet, magisterial beauty of Evans' photographs of sharecroppers.
The three families headed by Bud Fields, Floyd Burroughs and Frank Tingle, lived in the Hale County town of Akron, Alabama, and the owners of the land on which the families worked told them that Evans and Agee were "Soviet agents," although Allie Mae Burroughs, Floyd's wife, discounted the information in later interviews. Evan's photographs of the families made them icons of Depression-Era misery and poverty. Many years later, some of the subjects' descendants maintained that the family was presented in a falsely unflattering light by Evans' photographs. In September 2005, Fortune revisited Hale County and the descendants of the three families for its 75th anniversary issue.
It has been suggested that Evans provided the inspiration behind Andy Warhol's photo booth portraits, following the publication of 'Subway Portraits' in Harper's Bazaar in March 1962. Evans first experimented with photo booth self-portraits in New York in 1929, using it to detach his own artistic presence from his imagery, craving after the true objectivity of what he later described as the "ultimate purity" of the "record method."
Evans, like other photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, rarely spent time in the darkroom making prints from his own negatives. He only very loosely supervised the making of prints of most of his photographs, sometimes only attaching handwritten notes to negatives with instructions on some aspect of the printing procedure.
Evans was a passionate reader and writer, and in 1945 became a staff writer at Time magazine. Shortly afterward he became an editor at Fortune magazine through 1965. That year, he became a professor of photography on the faculty for Graphic Design at the Yale University School of Art (formerly the Yale School of Art and Architecture).
In 1971, the Museum of Modern Art staged a further exhibition of his work entitled simply Walker Evans.
Evans died in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1975. In 2000, he was inducted into the St. Louis Walk of Fame.