For artists at the dawn of the 20th Century, the modern world must have seemed like a bright, shiny and inspiring place. Think of FT Marinetti, whose rhapsodic Futurist Manifesto, published in 1909, extolled factories and shipyards, bridges and railway stations, locomotives and racing cars. “A roaring car that seems to ride on grapeshot is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace,” he wrote. 

̶ Car photos that capture a century

̶ Heartstopping photos of beauty, joy and loss

Celebrating Walker Evans’ ground-breaking work

By the time of the artistic maturity of the US photographer Walker Evans (1903-75), though, much of that seductive appeal had worn off. As an important retrospective of more than 400 artworks at the Pompidou Centre in Paris reveals, Evans, unlike Marinetti, was no cheerleader for modernity.

In a way, this is surprising, since the show suggests that Evans’ photographic career began conventionally enough, as a budding modernist. Indebted to formal innovations by avant-garde photographers such as the Russian Alexander Rodchenko, Evans’ boldly framed early pictures, from the late 1920s, eulogised New York’s awe-inspiring architecture. Like many others, he felt compelled to photograph Brooklyn Bridge and Broadway. 

The photographs Evans took of impoverished cotton sharecroppers are synonymous with the Great Depression

In the ’30s, though, Evans found his distinctive artistic voice, and began creating the black-and-white pictures for which he will always be remembered. In particular, the photographs he took in 1936, of impoverished cotton sharecroppers in Hale County, Alabama, have become synonymous with the Great Depression.

Because of these pictures, Evans is often described as a ‘documentary photographer’, who captured the tough realities of life for US citizens in the years following the terrible stock market crash of 1929.

Evans, himself, though, took issue with this description: “Documentary? That’s a very sophisticated and misleading word,” he said in an interview in 1971. 

‘American vernacular’

So, the curators of the Pompidou’s exhibition – which, later this year, will travel to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (its only destination in the US) – contextualise his photographs of Southern tenant farmers by seeing them as part of Evans’s lifelong obsession with what they call the “American vernacular”.

 “The origin of the word ‘vernacular’ is the Latin verna, which means a slave born in his or her master’s house,” explains Julie Jones, assistant curator of the Evans exhibition. “So, ‘vernacular’ describes things that are useful and domestic, popular and ‘low’.”

The term is often used by linguists to refer to native dialects. Architectural historians also deploy it to describe dwellings constructed in accordance with local building traditions. 

It is fascinating, in this context, to note that Evans’ turning point, as a photographer, came in 1931, when he accompanied an architectural historian around the Boston area, taking photographs of vernacular Victorian buildings. These pictures formed the focus of Evans’s exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1933.

The list of vernacular subjects photographed by Evans is extensive. It includes humble roadside shacks selling fruit, garages offering automobile parts, simple clapboard churches, and common household tools. He catalogued many of the latter, in close-up, in an extraordinary portfolio that appeared in Fortune magazine in 1955.

Evans was not interested in politicians or movie stars, but in the simple people who made America – Julie Jones

Like a sort of proto-Pop artist, Evans – whose father worked in advertising – was fascinated by popular culture. He often photographed billboards, hand-painted signs, and movie posters. He also collected ephemera, including postcards, bus tickets, and roadside enamel signs.

“He was trying to show what Americans were seeing, their everyday environments,” Jones explains. As a result, she continues, when it came to photographing people, Evans “was not interested in politicians or movie stars, but in the simple people who made America, like the poor sharecroppers in Alabama.”

This tendency was evident as early as 1933, when he travelled to Havana to produce a portfolio: the Cubans who caught his eye were dockworkers and down-and-outs. 

‘The grandeur of simple things’

It is tempting to romanticise Evans’s pursuit of the vernacular as a quest to capture his homeland’s soul. Certainly, there is an elegant but robust nobility to many of his photographs – a quality that has been described as ‘the grandeur of simple things’ – and this may be tinged with patriotic celebration. Despite the hardscrabble circumstances in which they find themselves, Evans’ good-looking sharecroppers are imbued with dignity. 

At the same time, though, tensions in US society, especially during the ’30s, ensured that Evans’s photographs often contained critical, as well as celebratory, notes. 

“Evans wasn’t showing the brilliant side of modernity at all,” argues Jones. “In fact, as well as poor people, he was obsessed with obsolescence and decay. His image of America during the ‘30s was really dark: like other photographers at that time, such as Dorothea Lange, he was insisting on the poverty of people.”

As Evans, himself, put it in 1971, referring to his rebellious outlook during the ’30s: “I was really anti-American at the time.” 

His instinct to chronicle modernity’s dark side is apparent throughout the show at the Pompidou. For instance, around 1930, he photographed workers loading onto the back of a truck an enormous illuminated sign spelling out the word “Damaged”: surely, it must be understood as a metaphor for US society in general. Meanwhile, his photographs of displaced African-Americans, in threadbare clothes, queuing for food in the wake of the Arkansas floods of 1937, remain hard-hitting.

In 1936, Evans photographed a crumbling plantation mansion in Louisiana, while, a year later, he recorded Joe’s Auto Graveyard, a melancholic landscape of good-for-nothing car chassis, discarded in an otherwise empty field. (He returned to the theme of automobile junkyards in the 1960s.) Ramshackle wooden houses were another favourite subject.

Evans hated these ‘beautiful’ photographs that were exhibited in museums – Julie Jones

Moreover, throughout his career, Evans repeatedly photographed rubbish, as in Street Litter, Chicago, Illinois (1946) and Trash Can, New York (1968). “He was obsessed with garbage,” Jones says, “and fascinated by the processes of overproduction.”

In part, Evans was drawn to junk because he wished to differentiate himself from his ‘auteurist’ photographer peers, such as Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Weston, whose self-conscious images were intended to promote photography as ‘art’. “Evans hated these ‘beautiful’ photographs that were exhibited in museums,” Jones explains. “He always avoided spectacular effects of light or shadow, and defended a democratic approach to photography, which he believed should be rooted in reality.”

Given all this, it is tempting to conclude that, today, his photographs are more resonant than ever. This is because, following the financial crisis of 2008, the US is once again riven by inequality.

Certainly, this context contributed to the success of another exhibition, America After the Fall: Painting in the 1930s – featuring work by Evans’ contemporaries, including Grant Wood’s American Gothic (1930) – which closed recently at the Royal Academy of Arts in London: for many visitors, drawing parallels between America back then, and America now, was irresistible.

“Yes, I think everybody will see this connection,” says Jones, referring to the Evans retrospective. “There is renewed interest in America now, because we are trying to understand why we have ended up in such a dramatic situation. When you look at Evans’ images of common people, poverty and garbage on the streets, of course you think about America today. There’s huge resonance.”

Alastair Sooke is Art Critic and Columnist of The Daily Telegraph

If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.

And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Earth, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.