I’m not sure that many people know about the friendship between Walker Evans and Ben Shahn. Maybe it’s because their careers took such different paths, or maybe because Shahn’s work “went out of style” in a sense, partly because of it’s political nature, partly due to the rise of Modernism.
Whatever the reason, in the early 1930′s, Ben Shahn was sharing a studio with Walker Evans, and he constantly complained to Evans that his notebook was far too cumbersome and that the sketches were insufficient for his needs. Evans suggested that he might get a small Leica camera and begin to take pictures instead of doing sketches.
Shahn knew nothing about photography, so Evans gave him a brief lesson, “Its easy, Ben, F/9 on the sunny side of the street, F/4.5 on the shady side of the street, hold steady for a twentieth of a second.”[i] He began to use the camera as his sketch pad. He was very excited because he felt that “what the photographer can do that the painter can’t is to arrest that split second of action in a guy stepping onto a bus, or eating at a lunch counter.”
The photographs became the raw material from which Shahn could structure and put together his ideas for murals and paintings. He also spent 5 years working as a photographer for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) shortly after he first picked up the camera. Even when the program was downsized due to lack of governmental funds, Shahn stayed on. At one point Walker Evans was actually the one to be fired because of his perfectionist eye. His insistence on use of the view camera caused him to be the photographer with the fewest negatives, and, therefore, the one to go.
Walker Evans spoke about his relationship with Shahn in this interview from 1971.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Well, you shared a studio or something with Shahn, didn’t you for a while? What was it like sharing space with a painter, sharing a studio with a painter?
WALKER EVANS: The questions should be: “What’s it like with Shahn?” – because everybody is different and Shahn was a very special character. Well, we had a great attachment to each other Shahn and I. Also he was an overpowering man. Which I begun to resent. He was too strong for me. But I knew I was getting educated. After all, a little boy from Kenilworth had never seen anybody like that, the son of a Russian immigrant really right out of the streets, you know, and tough. All the things I thought were exotic and fascinating. It was very marvelous. I was very attracted to his work. I loved it. I still do to this day. It’s not very fashionable to love it but I do. Everybody is disillusioned with Shahn really after having called him the greatest of contemporary artists. He’s lost that status I think. But he was a very clever and interesting artist. We both had the same kind of an eye really. That’s why he got interested in photography. He used to shamelessly make pictures from photographs.
[i] Laura Katzman, “Ben Shahn’s New York: Scenes from a Living Theater,” Ben Shahn’s New York: The Photography of Modern Times, (Hong Kong: Palace Press, 2000) 11-12.