Assignment 2 Research: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

Dorset farm - Steve Middlehurst 2016

Dorset farm – Steve Middlehurst 2016

It is rare for photographs to be published in total isolation from text whether it be hashtags, blogs, captions, cutlines, essays, artist statements, articles, news stories, words inside the frame or in books; the relationship between words and pictures is a subject in its own right which I will return to later but regardless of how text and photographs come together and whether they collaborate in equal or unequal partnerships each medium always changes the nature of the other.

In parallel with working on assignment 2 my focus over the last two weeks has been to look at how various practitioners have approached rural subjects and within that context the construction of photo series. In the pursuit of these topics I rather dismissed the work of the FSA photographers arguing that their work was “highly contextualised to time and place” (here). But, having reviewed John Berger and Jean Mohr’s A Fortunate Man (here) and subsequently having dipped into the same authors’ equally compelling works A Seventh Man and At The Edge of the World and reading John Berger’s assertion that he and Jean Mohr used the “magnificent” Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1) as their starting point (2) it became an imperative to find a copy of Agee and Walker’s landmark publication. At this stage I am more interested in how the photographer in the partnership developed their series of photographs but as, in this instance, the photographer is Walker Evans I want to first look at how he came to collaborate on this project and how it fitted into the context of his wider practice.

Walker Evans

In 1936, James Agee, a young writer working for Fortune Magazine, was given the assignment to report on tenant and sharecropper farmers in the Southern States, he was given the freedom to choose his own photographer and asked Walker Evans, then working for the Resettlement Administration (i), to accompany him.

Walker Evans, despite being a colossus of American photography eludes casual classification. As the first photographer to be invited to exhibit in a solo show at the Museum of Modern Art he has a better claim than most as an art photographer but there is no overt artistry in his work, it is straight and unadorned lacking the gimmickry that he despised, in fact David Campany argues that he was “uneasy with photography as an art and cautious about his image as an artist” (3).

For nearly thirty years from 1934 until 1965 he was associated with Fortune Magazine, first as a contributor and then as a full time staff photographer which suggests we define him as a photojournalist and Campany projects him as a magazine man in a much broader sense in Walker Evans the Magazine Work (3) by describing him as a photographer-writer who insisted on providing the text and directing the layout of his photo stories.

And, eventually, like many other great photographers, he finished his career as a teacher. He is most commonly thought of as a documentarist but he rejected “documentary” as being a “sophisticated and misleading word” arguing that a literal document is useful, for example a “police photograph of a murder scene” whereas art is useless so art can never be a document; he simply described himself as a photographer who used a “documentary style” (4).

Farmer's Boots - Steve MIddlehurst 2016

Farmer’s Boots – Steve MIddlehurst 2016

However we may wish to describe him Walker Evans was already an accomplished photographer when he accompanied Agee to Alabama in 1936. In Walker Evans (5) David Campany walks us through his career highlighting the repetitive themes that developed and evolved during the early 1930’s; they include words inside the frame, informal portraits in the style of August Sander, marginal people, vernacular architecture, the textures of weathering and decay, workers’ homes, automobiles, the road and, more broadly, the recording of things that were being swept aside by the relentless march of progress including the architecture and traditions of the common man.

These themes are important in that they all feature in  Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and in his other landmark publication American Photographs (6) which accompanied his 1938 Museum of Modern Art exhibition. Walker was at his creative peak in the 1930’s and most of his best known photographs date from this time and are included in one or both of these books. Campany presents a strong argument in Magazine Work that he continued to produce remarkable work until, at least, his retirement from publishing in 1964 but putting that aside for a moment I am struck that many of his passions at this early stage of his career are more often the subject matter and concerns of older men; serious photographers in their thirties are typically concerned with social issues but Evans was also highly sensitive to America’s ambivalence towards its own history and to the state of small towns and rural areas. He was looking back and attracted by the style and measured approach of Eugène Atget and August Sander, no doubt recognising that photography’s ability to record in an honest and factual way exceeded its potential as a high art; as described by Campany he “stood back from the white heat of progress and to the side of the mainstream values of twentieth-century America” (5).

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

Berger and Mohr collaborate by integrating text and picture; whilst neither specifically illustrate the other, they move through their books in pace with each other . The reader-viewer follows the photo-essay and the text simultaneously, using one to amplify the other; by the end of the experience I visualised two authors of a common mind, expressing a shared vision of a mutual experience. Agee and Evans not only took a completely different route they leave the reader-viewer questioning to what degree they reached a common conclusion regarding their subject. Evans’ photographs form the first section of the book with no introductory text, captions or other explanation and are followed by an unillustrated and lengthy story by Agee.

The first edition of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men was published in 1941, five years after Agee and Evans spent three to four weeks with the three families upon which the book is based. This delay was initially caused by Fortune magazine’s refusal to publish what was meant to be an article but that had grown into something much larger and subsequently by the authors’  struggle to find an interested publisher. Agee had raged about the situation of the tenant farmers but the delayed publication not only resulted in the book missing the moment when its message might have helped bring attention to the Southern rural poor but also coincided with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, the end of the depression and the resultant switch of American public attention to the war. Campany reports that it only sold 199 copies in its first two years of publication and although it went on to sell a further 750 copies after the price had been knocked down to 19 cents, less than the production cost (7).

It was republished in 1960, after the award of a posthumous Pulitzer Prize to James Agee who had died prematurely in 1955, and on this occasion met with critical acclaim. I have not seen the 1941 edition but understand that it is significantly different from the republished and better known 1960 edition. Bruce jackson explains that Evans increased the number of included photographs from thirty-one to sixty-two and significantly broadened their scope to include pictures from his earlier projects for the Resettlement Administration taken outside Alabama (8). He also included an essay of his own which alters the experimental structure of the original publication.

Throughout his career Evans was determined to control both his photography and how it was published; when working for Resettlement Association / Farm Security Administration he clashed with its director, Roy Stryker, on several occasions railing against Stryker’s scripted shoot plans whilst Stryker was disappointed with what he saw as Evans’ lack of productivity. Monika Berenyi reports that Evans “adopted a passive aggressive stance towards his director’s incessant formulaic instructions” (9) remaining fiercely independent. When budget restrictions hit the agency Evans was the first photographer to be dismissed. In the essay included within the Errata edition of American Photographs (6) John Hill describes Evans as having spent “much” of 1938 “planning, editing, sequencing and correcting” the pictures for the book and several writers refer to him locking himself into the Museum of Modern Art, equipped with the tools to rehang his photographs, on the night before the exhibition of the same name. One might assume that his long career with Fortune Magazine was facilitated by the freedom he was given to select his own photographic subjects, write his own text and design his page layouts.

This propensity towards controlling all aspects of his output and the previously discussed changes that he made between the 1941 and 1960 editions of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men raise questions regarding his collaboration with James Agee although his respect and liking for the man comes through in his foreword to the 1960 edition. In an interview in 2011 (10) he stated that this book was “the most conspicuous thing I’ve done” and emphasises that Agee was not only the leader of the project but that without his people skills the results would have been quite different.

The Photographs

From Let Us Now Praise Famous Men - Walker Evans 1936

From Let Us Now Praise Famous Men – Walker Evans 1936

This edition still opens with Evans’ photographs, they start immediately after his redesigned cover, no title, copyright page or preface; all that comes after his pictures and before Agee’s text. Not only the structure but the balance of this book is radically different to the works of Berger and Mohr. The photographs fill around thirty pages, the written word over three hundred and eighty. However, Agee is keen to make the point that this imbalance should not be misinterpreted and that the photographs and text are “co-equal, mutually independent, and fully collaborative” warning us that if we fail to understand this point it is due to the “impotence” of our eyes. Bruce Jackson (8) recalls that on his first attempt to read the book he assigned it to his “read later” pile after the third or forth insult to the reader and there is no doubt that Agee comes over as prickly, looking for a fight with everyone from the reader to his publishers just in case they had dared to edit his text. The intent here is not to review the book, just the photographs, but I have highlighted Agee’s confrontational style which is in great contrast to Evans’ description of how he acted with their subjects and, most relevantly, to Evans’ photographs.

Agee is angry with his editors for asking him to invade the lives of the tenant farmers to “parade their nakedness, disadvantage and humiliation ……. in the name of honest journalism” (1 – p5) and in the view of Catharina Graf (11) he was conflicted by Evans’ invasion of the subjects’ privacy. She argues that Agee had expected to remain distanced and objective but to achieve the results they needed the camera had to be intrusive, to enter the subjects’ homes in a way the writer could have, would have normally avoided; Agee was dragged too close for comfort by Evans’ photographic process. This is an intriguing and perceptive idea because the end result of Agee’s writing is subjective, highly personal, angry and self analytical whereas Evans’ photographs are restrained, beautifully gentle, straight and objective. Agee wanted to change the world but Evan’s was uncomfortable with being labelled as a “social protest artist” and said ” (I) never took it upon myself to change the world” (10) describing good photography as having “detachment, lack of sentimentality, originality” (12).

From Let Us Now Praise Famous Men - Walker Evans 1936

From Let Us Now Praise Famous Men – Walker Evans 1936

Part of the power of this book lies in the tension between the soap box, albeit sophisticated and complex soap box, writing style of Agee and the honest, sympathetic but detached photography of Evans. Each photograph demands description and discussion but to meet my current objectives of understanding the nature of the series I will try to comment on their collective effect. As previously discussed we know that the sequence is carefully managed by the photographer; he opens with the landlord in his jacket, shirt and tie; if the tenant farmers are victims this is the perpetrator of the crime (ii), the photograph is a homage to August Sander, a direct there quarter portrait that would not look out of place in Face of our Time. 

From Let Us Now Praise Famous Men - Walker Evans 1936

From Let Us Now Praise Famous Men – Walker Evans 1936

The series now switches between three central themes; farmers and farmers wives, exteriors and interiors of their houses and their children. In varying sequences Evans repeats these major motifs but always rests longer on the children that either their parents or their homes.

Apart from the handsome young man who features on the book’s cover the adults are tired, aged beyond their years, careworn and exhausted by hard physical labour and parenthood. In contrast the children are beautiful but passive and wary, we can predict their future and map their progress towards the exhausted hopelessness of their parents.

These are people who have had nearly everything, included their dreams, stolen from them by the system and an economic crisis, they only retain their dignity and Evans, much to his credit, leaves this intact. Suzanne Austgen (14) writes that, according to Agee, Evans allowed mothers to clean up their children before he photographed them and the interiors of the houses are often spotlessly clean, a level of tidiness and cleanliness that speaks of  these poor women still taking great pride in the way their humble, shack-like, homes are viewed and photographed by the Northern journalists. The scrubbed faces of the children and the newly tidied and dusted, but starkly simple homes, are more painful to view than any alternative, dirty reality; the inferred juxtaposition between their circumstances and how they wish to be viewed is all too human.

As was clear in American Photographs Evans is the master of this type of photography, it plays to his strengths and his lifelong interests. He can photograph a weathered shack near to collapse but represent it as valued architecture, a home more than a building, a thing to be understood in the context of a rapidly changing economic climate. He can capture the portrait of poverty as could Hine in a manner that generates hard anger rather than soft sympathy. These people were farmers, proud and hard people who stood on their own two feet taking on and dealing with everything the climate, landscape and nature threw at them only to be beaten by the system; they would not have asked for a sympathetic ear, nor would they have wanted to be represented as victims. Evans captures their pride both in their portraits and in their homes, he captures their practical nature, their hard work, their weather beaten faces and their loved children presenting them, not as needy, but as deserving of help.

After we have been introduced to the families Evans explores their journeys into town and contrasts the urban environment with the rural poor. This is a much harder section of the series to read and appears to dart in and out of a number of different subject matters that make less of a coherent whole than the first set of photographs. Main street looks alive and bustling and although the farmers have come to town in a horse drawn cart the street is lined with cars. However, he then  switches to run down commercial premises, black men sitting outside a decaying barber’s shop, a distressed building in the classical style and a deserted railway station emphasising the impact of the depression on the urban environment.

His ending is unambiguous; a child’s grave, the soil still dark from a recent burial. Even here he maintains his dignified approach by photographing the sad little mound from a mourner’s viewpoint.

From Let Us Now Praise Famous Men - Walker Evans 1936

From Let Us Now Praise Famous Men – Walker Evans 1936

Overall this is a compelling series that was tragically published too late to help the families with whom Agee and Evans developed a bond. Photography is always historic and the viewer is left to fill in the void between the then and now. If their situation radically improved in the economic boom that accompanied the war effort there is the chance that one or two of these small children are still alive and in their eighties looking back on a life that started in poverty in the rural South and ended who knows where? Evans’ straight documentary style with his often centrally positioned subjects and a total lack of artiness or pretension allows us to connect to these people.

I am a little haunted by the little boy in his filthy dungarees staring at the camera from inside his rusted and chipped metal cot. His dark eyes and half smile suggest a lively, bright little mind considering the meaning of the strange young man behind his huge camera. Did he grow up to be a farmer like his father? Did he have the chance to grow up at all?

From Let Us Now Praise Famous Men - Walker Evans 1936

From Let Us Now Praise Famous Men – Walker Evans 1936

Notes on Text

(i) Formed in 1935 the Resettlement Administration (RA) was the forerunner of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) which was established in 1937. In 1935 Roy E. Stryker became the head of the RA’s Historical Section and once the organisation was renominated in 1937 he established the photographic project that endeavoured to document the issues of the farmers they were trying to help. Some of the greatest American documentary photographers worked for Stryker and the FSA including Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and Russell Lee.

(ii) I feel somewhat guilty that having often read of the tenant farmers and sharecroppers of this era that it is only now that I have understand the economic realities of their existence. These farmers were contracted to handing over half their crop and a quarter of their earnings from their retained half. (13). It seems unlikely that this was a tenable model in the good times and in times of depression verged upon slavery as well as forcing them into bad farming and land management practices.

Sources

Books

(1) Agee, James and Evans, Walker (1941) Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (First Mariner Books Edition 2001). Boston: Houghton Miffin Company

(2) Berger, John (1967) Understanding a Photograph. London: Penguin Classics

(3) Campany, David (2014) Walker Evans: The Magazine Work. Göttingen: Steidl

(5) Campany, David (2015) Walker Evans. New York: Aperture

(6) Evans, Walker (1938) American Photographs (Errata Books on Books Second Edition 2011) New York: Errata

Internet

(4) Katz, Leslie (1971) I was damn well going to be an artist and I wasn’t going to be a businessman (accessed at ASX 29.3.16) – http://www.americansuburbx.com/2011/10/interview-an-interview-with-walker-evans-pt-1-1971.html

(7) Campany, David (2014) Walker Evans (1903 – 1975) (accessed at David Campany 29.3.16) – http://davidcampany.com/walker-evans-1903-1975/

(8) Jackson, Bruce (1999) The Deceptive Anarchy of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (accessed at Buffalo University 29.3.16) – http://www.acsu.buffalo.edu/~bjackson/LUNPFM.HTML

(9) Berenyi, Monika (2013) Reading Images by Walker Evans in the US Resettlement Administration-Farm Security Administration Archival File, 1935-1938 (accessed at the author’s website 5.4.16) – http://monikaberenyi.com/?p=108

(10) ASX (2011) An Interview with Walker Evans: ‘The Thing Itself is Such a Secret and so Unapproachable’ (1974) (accessed at ASX 29.3.16) – http://www.americansuburbx.com/2011/10/interview-walker-evans-with-students.html

(11) Graf, Catharina Image and Text at Work: ‘Let Us Now Praise famous Men’ and the Photographic Essay (accessed at Academia 29.3.16) – https://www.academia.edu/3677714/Image_and_Text_at_Work_Let_Us_Now_Praise_Famous_Men_and_the_Photographic_Essay

(12) Cummins, Paul (1971) Walker Evans on What Makes a ‘Good Photograph’ and Avoiding ‘Too Much Pictorialism’ (accessed at ASX 29.3.16) – http://www.americansuburbx.com/2014/11/walker-evans-good-photograph.html

(13) Denby, David (2006) A Famous Man (accessed at the New Yorker 29.3.16) – http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2006/01/09/a-famous-man

(14) Austgen, Suzanne. Let Us Now Praise famous Men: Agee and Evans’ Great Experiment  (accessed at History Hanover 29.3.16) – http://history.hanover.edu/hhr/hhr93_5.html

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