Initially hoping to become a writer, Evans went to Paris in 1926 to study literature. After returning to the United States, he began to establish himself as a photographer with images of architecture and everyday life. In 1933, writer Lincoln Kirstein described Evans’s work as possessing a ‘tender cruelty’, referring to his combination of a clear, factual gaze with empathy for his subject matter. In 1935, Evans joined the Farm Security Administration to document the lives of the rural poor at the height of the Depression. With writer James Agee, he produced an extensive study of white tenant farmers in the Deep South, published as Let Us Now Praise Famous Men 1941.
A retrospective of Evans’s work was the first major photography exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. The accompanying publication American Photographs 1938 was carefully selected and ordered by Evans, one of the first examples of a photography book being presented as an important art form in its own right. Evans’s other notable works included portraits of passengers on the New York subway, taken using a concealed camera.