Auto Focus: Walker Evans on Rolls-Royce

Walker Evans—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
Walker Evans—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
A 1912 Rolls-Royce Speedster, Montreal meet of the Rolls-Royce Owners Club in August 1958.
Autos
'50s

For those photography buffs familiar with the groundbreaking pictures he made for the Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression, the notion that a powerful, uncompromising artist like Walker Evans was for decades a staff employee at Time Inc. can sometimes come as something of a shock. There’s a certain cognitive dissonance, after all, in finding that the man who so passionately chronicled — and, in a real sense, ennobled — the dire struggles of the poor in 1930s America was also a salaried editor at, of all places, Fortune magazine.

But from the mid-1940s to the mid-1960s, Evans — arguably the single most influential American photographer of the 20th century — neatly balanced his vehement artistic drive with an utterly practical desire for security, serving as a photo editor at Fortune until 1965. That the magazine was known, somewhat surprisingly, not only for its social conscience and its willingness to decry the excesses of the free market, but also as a publication that recognized and published genuine — and even iconoclastic — talent (James Agee, Alfred Kazin and Archibald MacLeish were just a few of the writers in its pages) likely made Evans’ decision to remain at Fortune, and at Time Inc. in general, for as long as he did easier than it might otherwise have been.

Copper and brass engine of a 1914 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost Tourer.

The engine of a 1914 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost, photographed in Montreal in 1958 by Walker Evans for Fortune magazine.

While at Fortune, Evans worked on countless features in his dual capacity as editor and photographer. Here, on the anniversary of the March 15, 1906, founding of Rolls-Royce, LIFE offers a gallery of Walker Evans photos from one such assignment: pictures he made in August 1958 “at Montreal,” noted Fortune in its December 1, 1958, issue, “at a meet of the Rolls-Royce Owners Club. About 100 cars came to Montreal, one from as far away as Kansas. The club was first formed by owners whose principal enthusiasm was the vintage machines of 1906-1936,” the piece concluded, “but it has been tolerant enough to admit even owners of recent models.”

The larger Rolls-Royce feature in that 1958 issue, meanwhile, titled “Rolls-Royce Stoops to Sell,” included a few bits of information that, more than five decades later, feel as if they might be dispatches from ancient history, rather than from the middle part of the 20th century. For example:

“Now that it has descended into the market place, which it austerely disdained for so long, Rolls-Royce of England may do what no U.S. car manufacturer has seriously attempted to do — sell cars that cost a cool $13,000 or more to thousands of Americans every year.” (At the end of the 1950s the average cost of a car in the U.S. was around $2,000.)

But probably the single most striking observation in the entire 4,000-word article comes from Llewellyn Smith, Ph.D., the managing director of Rolls-Royce’s Motor Car and Auto Dealer Bond Division. After discussing the happy obsession with precision parts and the attention to superb quality for which Rolls-Royce has always been famous, Fortune quotes Smith offering this marvelous admission: “I suppose you might say that Rolls-Royce is the only company in the world that make automobiles for the fun of it.”

Whether for fun, or for profit, the result for close to 100 years has remained the same: automobiles quite simply unlike any other — captured here by a photographer unlike any other.

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