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Walker Evans & Ben Shahn: American Art of the Great Depression in Greenwich Village

Left: Portrait of Walker Evans, Ben Shahn circa 1930. Right: Portrait of Ben Shahn at 23 Bethune Street, Walker Evans circa 1930

When asked about the studio at 20 – 22 Bethune Street in Greenwich Village he shared with Ben Shahn in 1971, Walker Evans told the Smithsonian Institution Archives of American Art “This is all interesting. This is what I say: People do get drawn together when they’re sort of meant to.” Ben Shahn (September 12, 1898 – March 14, 1969), a Lithuanian American social realist painter, and Walker Evans (November 3, 1903 – April 10, 1975), an American photographer and photojournalist best known for his striking images of the Great Depression, are two of the most influential figures in American art of the 1930s. 

Left: 20-22 Bethune Street, 1940s Tax Photo. Right: 20-22 Bethune Street today.

Left: 23 Bethune Street 1940s Tax Photo. Right: 23 Bethune Street today.

Shahn and Evans met at a house party in Columbia Heights, Brooklyn around 1932. Shortly after, Shahn and Evans began to share studio space on Bethune Street and for a time Evans even rented a basement apartment at 23 Bethune Street from Shahn, who lived with his family on the first floor. Greenwich Village at this time was known as the hub of social and political progressive thought as well as the center of the radical art world in New York. From his home and studio on Bethune Street, Shahn was close to Edith Halpert’s Downtown Gallery, where his work was frequently exhibited.

Walker Evans. South Street, New York. 1932.
Walker Evans. West Virginia Living Room. 1935.

Walker Evans and Ben Shahn had an indelible impact on one another’s artistic production. By the time the pair met, Shahn was already recognized as a big personality in the art world. Of the friendship, Evans told the Archives of American Art:

 “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 [Illinois] 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.”

Ben Shahn. The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti. 1931–1932.
Ben Shahn. Three Men With Iron Pilaster, New York. Photo reference for Three Men. 1934.
Ben Shahn. Three Men. 1939.

In his 1964 interview with the Smithsonian Archives of American Art, Ben Shahn fondly recalled asking Evans for photography lessons:  

“…I thought I could always ask Walker to show me what to do and so on, and it was a kind of an indefinite promise that he made. One day when he was going off to the South Seas and I was helping him into his taxi, I said, ‘Walker, remember your promise to show me how to photograph?’ He says, ‘Well, it’s very easy, Ben. F9 on the sunny side of the street, F4.5 on the shady side of the street. For a twentieth of a second hold your camera steady,’ and that was all. This was the only lesson I ever had.” 

After meeting, working, and sharing studio space with Evans, Ben Shahn incorporated photography into his painting practice and even took on some strictly photography-based commissions. 

Allie Mae Burroughs, wife of cotton sharecropper. Hale County, Alabama. Photo by Walker Evans. 1935 – 1936.
A deputy with a gun on his hip during the September 1935 strike in Morgantown, West Virginia. Photo by Ben Shahn. 1935.

In 1935, Walker Evans and Ben Shahn also worked together on a commission from the Resettlement Administration, a Works Progress Administration program later known as the Farm Security Administration, to document rural communities throughout the American south. On this commission, Evans took one of the most famous images of the Great Depression, a striking portrait of Allie Mae Burroughs, wife of a cotton sharecropper in Hale County, Alabama. Shahn collected his experiences and photographs from the south and incorporated them into his WPA murals at Rikers Island and in Roosevelt, New Jersey. This experience further expanded Shahn’s experience in photography and led to him making some of his most consequential photographs on the Lower East Side a year later. 

Untitled (Bowery – Charlie Chaplin Poster). Photo by Ben Shahn. 1936.

The number of artists and art organizations in Greenwich Village and the surrounding neighborhoods in the early 20th century were crucial to the evolution of America art. The close proximity allowed for an exchange of ideas and information unlike anywhere else in the United States at the time. To learn more about the artists who called Greenwich Village home, take a look at our Artists’ Homes & Haunts Tour of the Greenwich Village Historic District. Also check out our #SouthOfUnionSquare, Birthplace of American Modernism blog series and South of Union Square Urban Archive Artists Tour to learn more about the art history of our neighborhoods. 

2 responses to “Walker Evans & Ben Shahn: American Art of the Great Depression in Greenwich Village

  1. Thanks for this fine ‘snapshot’ of two important artists in their Village setting.

    (There does seem to be a typo to fix – ‘Kahn’ for ‘Shahn’ – in the caption for the Chaplin-poster photo.)

    Yours for more of your fine work,
    Cindy Cisler

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