from Let us Now Praise Famous Men: Top, "William and Ida
Ruth Tengle" and "Townspeople Converse," both from Hale
County, Ala., 1936.
In August 1936, Fortune magazine assigned writer James
Agee (1909-1953) to report on rural poverty in the South, which had been devastated
by the Depression. Agee invited his friend, photographer Walker Evans (1903-1975),
to join him and record their journey and month-long stay with three rural families
in Alabama and Mississippi.
The result was a Whitmanesque outpouring of words, feelings
and impressions from Agee, and an elegant, precise collection of profound images
by Evans. Perhaps their joint effort was too elegant for journalism, however,
because the editors at Fortune turned it down. Agee decided to turn
the project into a book, combining his fiery words with Evans’ ice-cool photography.
Five years later, Houghton-Mifflin published Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.
The reportage became one of the most important studies of
American cultural history and the art of observation. It expanded the boundaries
of writing and photography, and is an early example of experimental literature.
Now the words and pictures by two of America’s pre-eminent
artists are on exhibit at the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, Pa.,
July 20-Oct. 13. Walker Evans and James Agee: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
features more than 76 of Evans’ photographs and selected prose passages
by Agee, along with letters and notebooks documenting their process. Curated
by noted Evans scholar Ulrich Keller, the exhibit is comprised of materials
preserved at the Harry Ransome Humanities Research center of the University
of Texas at Austin.
On Oct. 6, the Michener Museum will sponsor "Walker Evans
and His Influence: A Continuing Tradition," a daylong symposium that brings
artists and educators together to discuss Evans’ work and the profound effect
it had on contemporary photography.
Bruce Katsiff, director and CEO of the Michener Museum, reflects
on how times and priorities have changed. It seems unthinkable that a prestigious
New York-based magazine would report on abject poverty in the South. "It seems
like an odd project, but this was an era when the Depression was on everyone’s
mind," he says.
Mr. Katsiff says that the essence of the project was in the
same spirit as Evans’ photographic studies for the Works Progress Association,
where he was part of a team that also included Dorothea Lange and Ben Shahn,
assigned to document conditions across America during the Depression.
About one-third of the images were shot with a 35mm hand-held
Leica, a departure from Evans’ signature photography with large-format cameras.
It is the unsullied, objective quality of this body of Mr. Evans’ work that
pushed his documentary technique to the limit.
"Afterwards, this aspect of his work seemed to operate in
something of a vacuum," wrote John T. Hill and Gilles Mora in the Evans retrospective
The Hungry Eye (Abrams, 1993). "Nothing quite measured up to this Alabama
Some have described the pairing of Agee with Evans as "fire
and ice." Mr. Hill and Mr. Mora wrote that Agee threw himself into the project
with an almost religious fervor, "forcing himself to stay up all night to write
his discoveries of the preceding day. Evans, with his reserved and ironic nature,
seems to have kept a greater distance, which may explain the creative tension
between the descriptive lucidity of his photography and the undisciplined lyricism
of Agee’s text. Their only concern was to avoid their work being turned into
a sentimental document."
Over time, many of the photographs have become symbols of
rural America in the 1930s.
"So much of our visual consciousness of the 1930s comes from
these pictures," Mr. Katsiff says. "The photos symbolize that period of American
life and are the record for most of us. They tell us what that time was like."
For example, think of the Depression and the face of tenant
farmer Allie Mae Burroughs might come to mind. Shot in Hale County, Ala., in
summer 1936, she is posed against a wood-shingled cabin, thin-lipped, hair
parted down the side and pulled back, looking unflinchingly at the camera.
Her husband, Floyd Burroughs, with his overalls and beard stubble, is another
icon of those times. There is no information about their ages, but they are
probably in their early 20s, much younger than they seem. Poverty seems to
have given them a hardness and wisdom beyond their years. However, Floyd Burroughs’
handsome features also give him a wistful, movie-star quality, which belies
the fatigue of field labor.
It is not only the faces of Evans’ subjects that tell the
"plain, unvarnished truth," as Agee wrote. Evans’ photography captured details
like the order and tranquility of a tenant family’s kitchen, the Spartan alignment
of eating utensils across a cabin wall and Floyd Burroughs’ workshoes.
"Storefront," Greensboro, Ala.; left, "Washing and Dining
Area of Burroughs’ Home."
"The important thing about Evans is his (reputation) as the
objective observer," Mr. Katsiff says. "Evans is not making propaganda. He’s
not trying to make pictures that make the poor seem poorer. He’s out there
recording what he sees, details like the shoes and the kitchen. If there’s
political content, it’s coming from the viewer, not the photographer. You,
the observer, bring the value judgements to it."
Mr. Katsiff says Evans’ ice-cold objectivity is a world away
from the "concerned photographers" of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, who believed
they could change the world and push their personal political agendas through
"Evans is absolutely the opposite," Mr. Katsiff says. "He
doesn’t have a point of view. He’s making art, not a political statement."
Agee, on the other hand, did have an agenda. One of the aspects
to the project that fired his spiritual conscience, and perhaps was the seed
for the book’s enigmatic title, was to show the public that the poor were people
who deserved compassion. Their hardscrabble lives were not due to some inherent
moral weakness that they couldn’t overcome. These families were victims of
the economy, geography and implacable circumstances.
"When you put it in context, that was another piece of the
puzzle," Mr. Katsiff says. "There was this Calvinistic idea that the poor were
that way because they had done something wrong and were being punished.
"This documentary and the WPA project showed
the poor as victims rather than the cause of their own ills. Both hoped to
reposition the American psyche to see the poor as folks who needed help and
compassion, and to impart them with a sense of respect."
Hence, "let us now praise" these men and women, instead of
Mr. Katsiff says the exhibit has even more relevance now,
when Americans even if we’re in debt up to our ears live in material
abundance, with big-screen televisions, truck-sized cars and eight-room trophy
"The show helps us to realize how far the country has moved
on, especially around here," he says. "People may not know that these neighboring
areas, the farming communities of Bucks County and rural New Jersey, were hit
hard by the Depression. It’s the affluence that makes this exhibit that much
Walker Evans and James Agee: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is on view at
the First Union Gallery of the James A. Michener Art Museum, 138 S. Pine St.,
Doylestown, Pa., July 20-Oct. 13. Gallery hours: Tues.-Fri. 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m.,
Wed. 10 a.m.-9 p.m., Sat.-Sun. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Admission costs $4, in addition
to regular museum admission: $6; $5.50 seniors; $3 students; free under age
6. The symposium Walker Evans and His Influence: A Continuing Tradition
will be held at the Ann and Herman Silverman Pavilion, Oct. 6, 9:30 a.m.-4
p.m. $35; $25 students. For information, call (215) 340-9800. On the Web: www.michenerartmuseum.org