By Peter Junker
ATLANTA, GA - Michael A. W. Evans, a noted newspaper, magazine, and White House photojournalist and early developer of software systems for cataloging photography collections, died on December 1, 2005, at his home in Atlanta. Mr. Evans succumbed at the age of 61 after a four-year fight against cancer. At the time of his death he was surrounded by his family. Story Evans, his wife, this morning wrote, "The presence of God and the community of our friends sustained him to the very end. For that we will be eternally grateful."
A memorial service will be held on Tuesday, December 6, 2005 at 3:45 p.m. at St. Anne’s Episcopal Church, 3098 St. Anne’s Lane, Atlanta, GA.
The child of a Canadian diplomat and a registered nurse who were stationed in Havana during the Cuban revolution and Capetown, South Africa, during the quickening of the apartheid resistance, Evans took an early interest in political philosophy and world events. Among his peers Evans was highly regarded as a complete photographer, with mastery of a broad range of assignments, including daily news, portraiture, documentary photography and sports. To the larger world, his best known shots are the iconic images of presidential candidate Ronald Reagan, begun on assignment for Time magazine in 1975, and, later, his revealing record of life and politics behind the scenes of the Reagan Administration.
Evans’ photojournalism career began in Ontario at the Port Hope Evening Guide in 1959, when he was 15. “They paid me two dollars for a photograph and ten cents an inch for the stories I wrote on the [school] football games,” Evans said. “I wrote very long stories.” Evans joined NPPA in August, 1965.
His chosen profession eventually took him to the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, OH, in 1964 and shortly thereafter to The New York Timesand Time magazine. It was John G. Morris, now the eminence gris of picture editors, who brought Mr. Evans to the Times in 1967. Newly arrived at the paper himself, Morris wanted to solidify its photojournalistic preeminence by staffing it with the best and brightest shooters. He had been pursuing Eddie Adams, the veteran Associated Press and magazine photographer whose large body of work included dramatic moments of social unrest and foreign conflict. Adams’ reputation allowed him to flourish as a freelance however, and he declined Morris’s offers. (Adams was awarded the Pulitzer Prize the following year for his photograph of a prisoner execution in South Vietnam.) Evans—10 years Adams’ junior and already amassing an impressive portfolio—was Morris’s other choice. “He was a damned good photographer. I’ve always been proud that he was my first hire,” Morris said.
Donald R. Winslow, Evans’ long-time friend and editor of NewsPhotographer magazine, recently published an appreciation of Evans’ early work in Cleveland and New York, contrasting it with today’s “boring” pictures of staged events, press conferences and posed photo-ops. “They were real pictures,” Winslow wrote, “[like the] picture from a city hall meeting where a firefighters’ union representative, at the bargaining table, pounds a blurred fist on the table in frustration with the lack of progress in the labor negotiations. That picture didn’t just happen during a photo opportunity or at a press conference. It happened because [Evans] spent hours waiting and watching for it.”
"Mike Evans was a skilled photographer, but his genius was storytelling,” Winslow said at Evans’ passing. “Mike took the potential for telling stories with pictures to a new level. You can see his eye and his intellect in picture after picture and his integrity in the choices he made. You see him thinking, 'What is important here and how will my picture tell the truth about it?'"
For Time, Evans was on the road covering the Reagan campaign solidly from late August, 1979, until Christmas, 1980. When Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter in the 1980 election, Evans was offered a position as personal photographer to the new President. He would be independent of the White House press office and given unparalleled access to the President. Although he had more lucrative opportunities, he accepted the offer and spent the next four years making a pictorial record of the administration and its chief executive. Lois Romano, a staff writer at TheWashington Post aptly described Evans’ position in 1985 as “a job that requires him to be both ubiquitous and invisible.”
Evans also led a small team of photographers and picture editors, oversaw a photo lab in the White House basement, and occasionally interceded with administration officials on behalf of his colleagues in the media.
In 1982 Evans established “The Portrait Project,” a nonprofit for which he assumed the audacious task of photographing all the individuals he considered to be the era’s movers and shakers in Washington. In the end, 595 subjects agreed to sit for their portraits, an unpartisan selection that included the Chief Justice, members of Congress and socialites as well as journalists, a secretary, and a senior Capitol janitor. The project culminated in an exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution titled People and Power: Portraits from the Federal Village and a book of the same name. Evans said he made an explicit egalitarian statement in titling the project People and Power, not in, of, or with power, and that he wanted to preserve a “geological record” of government in a single moment of time for future citizens. Some of the show’s prints are in the Library of Congress while the negatives are now housed in the National Archives.
George Will noted the equalizing urge behind People and Power, writing, "Representative governments are, well, awfully representative, at least in this sense: They are made up of folks who look like and are like most other folks. [Evans’] portraits testify, I think, to democracies' pleasantness."
In Washington, Evans met his future spouse, Story Shem, a former Carter administration aide and founding partner of Arrive, a Washington communications firm with an all-woman staff. One of Arrive’s clients was Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, who was making his first visit to the U.S. to meet the President.
Evans promptly enlisted Shem to help organize his ambitious portrait project and coax a number of notable holdouts to schedule photo sessions. The couple married in 1983 and moved to Atlanta where Michael briefly served as photography editor for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Evans stopped taking pictures but stayed deeply involved in advancing the profession for new generations of photographers. Seeing a vast unmet need for efficiently conserving and cataloging photo archives, Evans developed proprietary software with a system of coding photographs that enabled speedy digital searches of large collections. Getty Press, of the J. Paul Getty Museum, was among his clients. Another was ZUMA Press, the independent picture agency and wire service that Evans served as chief technology officer. (ZUMA Press represents Evans’ photo collection.)
In addition to his wife, Story, Evans is survived by six children, two brothers, and a sister. Oldest son Ewen Riddell lives in Raleigh, NC; son Drew Evans lives in Los Angeles, CA; daughter Megan Evanslives in Toronto; daughter Amanda Evans lives in Monterey, CA; daughter Abigail Evans is at Davidson College in Davidson, NC; andMadeleine Evans lives at home in Atlanta. Evans' sisters, EsmeComfort and Judy Evans, and his brother, Tony Evans, reside in Canada. In Atlanta, the Evans family is active in St. Anne's Episcopal parish in the Buckhead neighborhood. Friends of the family in Georgia remember Michael as a proud and supportive parent, an insatiable reader, and an especially well-informed raconteur with an unflagging sense of curiosity.
While Evans’ newspaper work, portrait project, and software company required countless hours of persistent effort, he shot his most celebrated photograph while engaged in informal banter with his subject in the hills of Santa Barbara, CA. It is the image that has come to represent Ronald Reagan to many Americans: the cowboy with a working man’s tan, lined face and well-worn hat; the affecting, slightly crooked smile and confident, clear eyes that belied both his age and his political zeal. The picture rivals Matthew Brady’s image of Abraham Lincoln’s ethereal, weary, wartime gaze as one of the most recognized in the history of presidential portraiture. It is so quintessentially Reagan that at the time of the former President’s death it became the only photograph to be used as the cover of Time, Newsweek, and People magazines in the same week. Evans sometimes referred to it as “the picture.”
Winslow reflected on a telling aspect of “the picture’s” ascension to emblematic status: Evans made it when Reagan was still considered by many a fringe player in his party — a retired actor with a following in his home state of California, but an also-ran to President Gerald Ford in the Republican primaries. Despite the fact that his editors’ interest in Reagan was at first limited to a one-day assignment, Evans saw something intriguing in his subject. Following a hunch about Reagan’s appeal, he stayed at the ranch beyond the term of his magazine assignment. He was on his own time when he took the photo that captured the character and image of a man the world would soon come to know. The picture continues to be the most appreciated among many examples of Michael Evans’ knack of foresight and his skill as a storyteller.
Donations may be made to the Michael Evans Memorial Library Fund at St. Anne’s Episcopal Church, to the Arts and Photography programs at Davidson College, to the Woodward Academy, or to Hospice Atlanta.