By the late 1940s, Walker Evans had had his photographs published in numerous magazines, including TIME, Harper’s Bazaar and Architectural Digest. His important solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, in 1938, and the publication of his remarkable monograph, American Photographs, ensured his reputation as a prominent artistic figure.
In his essay for American Photographs, Lincoln Kirstein wrote: “After looking at these pictures with all their clear, hideous and beautiful detail, their open insanity and pitiful grandeur, compare this vision of a continent as it is, not as it might be or as it was, with any other coherent vision that we have had since the war.”
Several years later, in 1945, Evans was hired by Fortune magazine, a business publication launched by Henry Luce; he was the only staff photographer. Evans was already known for his quirky, anti-authoritarian sensibility, and so may have seemed an unlikely hire for the journal, but Luce’s high-minded aesthetic aspirations for the publication may have attracted him.
Walker Evans, The Rebirth of Ford, spread in Fortune, May 1947.
The May 1947 edition of Fortune contained a lengthy article entitled The Rebirth of Ford. The story addressed the Ford Motor Company’s restructuring under the direction of 28-year-old Henry Ford II. The article featured five images by Evans, along with a rendering of the 1076-acre River Rouge plant and portraits of team members. Given Evans’ distinctive approach to picture-making, an elegant documentary-style that privileged the everyday, his photographs convey a strong visual counterpoint to the magazine’s other content: colorful upscale advertisements, schematic charts and graphics and portraits of executives in power suits.
Charles Sheeler, Criss-Crossed Conveyors, River Rouge Plant, Ford Motor Company, 1927. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The painter and photographer Charles Sheeler’s iconic photograph River Rouge Plant, Ford Motor Company, Detroit, 1929, predates Evans’ image by more than 15 years. Sheeler’s study, which was commissioned by an advertising agency, depicts a similar view but focuses on pure form. Evans’ image and editorial approach, while also reflecting standards associated with modernist practice, is not utopian. Rather his vantage point conveys the geometric rigor of criss-crossed conveyors but in a classic industrial setting. Additional foreground details in Evans’ composition, notably the signage with Ford’s logo, provide a human perspective typical of his pictorial style.