Our own Morgan Meis in The Smart Set:
Evans got his start working for the government. The Great Depression was on and the WPA was in full swing. The Farm Security Administration was looking, in particular, for photographic documentation of what the Depression was doing to the American farmer. Fortune magazine was interested in the same thing and, famously, notoriously, sent the writer and critic James Agee along with Walker Evans to produce a text with photographs. Fortune killed the story but it survived as the now iconic piece of work Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.
While Agee's text focused on the misery, it has often been remarked that Evans' photographs, bleak as they are, also capture something noble and unbowed in the individual faces he captured on film. Susan Sontag picked up on this fact in her own analysis of American photography from her classic work, On Photography. She saw a Whitman-esque spirit in Evan’s photography, a deeply democratic viewpoint that allowed each object, each person, to express the dignity of his own specific existence. She wrote, “American photography has moved from affirmation to erosion to, finally, a parody of Whitman's program. In this history the most edifying figure is Walker Evans. He was the last great photographer to work seriously and assuredly in a mood deriving from Whitman's euphoric humanism.” This Whitman-style exuberance was doomed to be shattered on the rocks of actual historical experience, thought Sontag. The happy American is also the childlike American. Whitman himself may have been special; he could sing the body electric all night long and still be humming the tune the next morning. The rest of us were not so lucky. The years pile up and do their dirty work.