James Agee & Walker Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: Three Tenant Families

This is one of the first books that I found when I started exploring documentary photography back in the early days of my study! What impressed me at that time was the fact that the text in no way tries to explain the images or define them, or describe what they depict (although as Errol Morris has pointed out, Agee does an inventory of the contents of a sharecropper family home and Evans photographs it, even using this as the basis for his photographic revelation of Evans as one not averse to moving objects around the interiors or even adding the infamous alarm clock!).

In the preface, Agee sets out the pair’s original goal:

to prepare, for a New York magazine,’ an article on cotton tenantry in the United States, in the form of a photographic and verbal record of the daily living and environment of an average white family of tenant farmers” (Agee & Evans 1960, p xiii).

Agee goes on to point out that their goal was to reveal to the readers “a portion of unimagined existence“, from which it would seem that the intended audience were expected to have no idea about the plight of these simple folk; however, both Agee and Evans knew that the viewing public had already seen the RA photographs and Caldwell/Bourke-White’s book. Agee makes the claim that “This is a book only by necessity. More seriously, it is an effort in human actuality” (ibid, p xvi) and later in the text enlarges on this idea:

If I could do it, I’d do no writing at all here. It would be photographs; the rest would be fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, lumps of earth, records of speech, pieces of wood and iron, phials of odors, plates of food and of excrement… A piece of the body torn out by the roots might be more to the point. As it is, though, I’ll do what little I can in writing… As a matter of fact, nothing I might write could make any difference whatever. It would only be a “book” at the best.” (ibid, p 13)

His point is that the written word can do little to describe the things they witnessed, a complete catalogue of the realities would serve better, and belittling his own skills as a writer, he hails the camera as “the central instrument of our time” (ibid, p 11).

In a rather paradoxical opening statement, Agee states his political point of view when he claims that the original journalistic motives for travelling to Alabama and recording the lives of the tenant farmers was “curiousobscene and thoroughly terrifying” since the work was obviously being done in the name of profit, or as he termed it “abelincolnism“, reputation, votes or in the name of humanity:

to pry intimately into the lives of an undefended and appallingly damaged group of human beings, an ignorant and helpless rural family, for the purpose of parading the nakedness, disadvantage and humiliation of these lives before another group of human beings” (ibid, p 7)

He then goes on to stress how the pair counted the government “among their most dangerous enemies“, and “trusted no judgement, however authoritative it claimed to be, save their own” almost in defence of the innocence and objectivity with which they approached the task, as if they were not seeking evidence to corroborate their point of view… indeed, Agee goes on to stress how they “so tenderly and sternly
respected” the tenant farmer families, and “so rashly undertook to investigate and to record” their lives (ibid, p 8) portraying himself and Evans as “two angry, futile and bottomless, botched and overcomplicated youthful intelligences in the service of an anger and of a love and of an undiscernible [sic] truth” and the families as people “whose lives we knew and whom we love and intend well toward” (ibid, p 9). The tenant families had a completely different take on things, however! Perhaps the truth is ‘undiscernible’ precisely because it eluded the two men in the field!

Agee then goes on to level the following accusation at the reader:

Who are you who will read these words and study these photographs, and through what cause, by what chance, and for what purpose, and by what right do you qualify to, and what will you do about it” (ibid, p 9)

In an attempt to “approach clarity and truth… without either dissection into science, or digestion into art, but with the whole of consciousness, seeking to perceive it as it stands… all of consciousness is shifted from the imagined, the revisive, to the effort to perceive simply the cruel radiance of what is” (ibid, p 11); in other words, Agee would have us believe that this is exactly the way things were, that Evans photographed his subjects without moving or orchestrating them… the whole truth and nothing but?!

So what is their purpose? Well, Agee finally gets round to making the point towards the end of his tirade:

this is a book about “sharecroppers,” and is written for all those who have a soft place in their hearts for the laughter and tears inherent in poverty viewed at a distance… in the hope that the reader will be edified, and may feel kindly disposed toward any well-thought-out liberal efforts to rectify the unpleasant situation down South, and will somewhat better and more guiltily appreciate the next good meal he eats” (ibid, p 14).

And follows this up with the following plea: “Above all else: in God’s name don’t think of it as Art” (p 15).

Agee’s text is a rich tapestry of sensual interaction with his experiences, and reads in a very surrealist, stream-of-consciousness fashion. The photographs and text were not presented together, the book begins with all of Evans’ images presented without captions or explanations in front of the title page. According to Agee, the photographs are not illustrative of the text, and the text does not explain the images: “They, and the text, are coequal, mutually independent, and fully collaborative” (ibid, p xv).

Although the book was originally conceived as a response to You Have Seen Their Faces, there are a number of shortcomings. The first problem is that the families have been given pseudonyms (in an attempt to protect their privacy, presumably) but secondly, the fact that they are never allowed to speak for themselves throughout the entire book is a major issue to my mind. As such, even though Agee lived among the sharecroppers, shared their homes and their food (Evans apparently preferring to stay in rented accommodation), we only ever really hear the poet’s voice, the big city educated man from the East who ‘talks funny.’ I would love to have heard what the Gudgers really felt about living the way they did!

Gudger – a family of six – lives on ten dollars a month rations money during four months of the year. He has lived on eight, and on six. Woods – a family of six – until this year was unable to get better than eight a month during the same period; this year he managed to get it up to ten. Ricketts – a family of nine – lives on ten dollars a month during this spring and early summer period. (1960, p117)

Another major issue is that the subjects were never really consulted about how they were going to be portrayed, or had any say in the final selection of images. Obviously these images reinforce stereotypes about Okies or simply ideas about how poor folk live in abject circumstances while still maintaining a certain pride (especially the image which shows the womenfolk tying their hair back, getting ready to be photographed); the interiors are always shown kept neat and orderly. As such, the images are illustrating the opinions of the authors rather than presenting a realistic objective picture of their lives; ‘truth’ is waived in favour of the political and aesthetic aims of the authors.

What did the Gudgers think of this? Maybe they thought they were relatively well-off considering, or maybe they were bitter. They may have been ultra-religious and though that it was divine decree and so why complain? Were they told, like Lange told her sitters, that their problems would be alleviated by participating and posing for the photographs? My problem was always that I never knew how the people really felt. I think this is what inspired me to start collecting first hand experiences and tales – not to render them down into some kind of Grimm brothers version that lacked the original flavour of the telling (first-hand accounts are all about context, performativity and audience interaction – the Benjaminian Storyteller), but rather to preserve the telling as it occurred. This is in the vein of Alan Lomax and Studs Terkel, and I really respect the work they did.

Although, as Rice (2001) observes, the publication “languished on the trash heap of art history for almost a quarter of a century before being recognized” since it neither reinforced prevailing stereotypes nor took a definite political stance on the migrants depicted; neither Agee’s text nor Evans’ photographs revealed any “overt moral position” and this neutral standpoint, according to Rice, was too complex a concept for contemporary readers to fathom:

The clear and simple vision of the sharecroppers’ shared humanity was the point of the book – a point much too subtle, and much too respectful of “the other half,” to be digested by the public of the 1930s. In the eyes of the American audience, Walker Evans’s work was not political enough; this photographer had nothing to say.” (Rice 2001, p 19)

The publication is itself the subject of several spin-off projects and articles. In A Paean to Forbearance (the Rough Draft) Christine Haughney makes a deliberate reference to Agee’s book title (in a sort of parodic paraphrasing), and tells of Agee’s original assignment for Fortune, and how he was disgusted that a commercial enterprise could “pry intimately into the lives of an undefended and appallingly damaged group of human beings.” In fact, Agee apparently decided that the lives of the sharecroppers deserved more than a magazine article, and deliberately refused to alter his original article to suit the needs of the magazine (he was a self declared communist sympathizer, and as such had a revolutionary streak!). The subject matter of Haughney’s article concerns the release of Agee’s original article for Fortune, published as “Cotton Tenants: Three Families“.

Apparently, Mort Jordan, a local filmmaker, produced a documentary film about the families in the 1980s (unfortunately I cannot even find the name of this documentary film):

The original subjects of “Famous Men,” Mr. Jordan said, “were embarrassed because it showed them living in squalor.” With time, he added, “what may have been embarrassment or a quandary had turned into a source of pride with some of them.”

Pride in the sense that their ancestors had retained their dignity and borne up under hard times. John Summers, the editor of Cotton Tenants, said this of Agee: “He’s got this kind of romantic moral outrage from what he is seeing.”

In a similar follow-up journalistic exercise, New York Times reporter Howell Raines descended on the Alabama inhabitants in 1980 to find that they were living in relative poverty, undereducated and still “mad as hell at Walker Evans“. Ruby Fields Darley was quoted as saying that the photographs were “a scandal on the family” while she expressed outrage at how her father had been (mis)represented in Evans’ photographs: “How they ever got Daddy’s picture without a shirt on and barefooted, I’ll never know” (Raines 1980, p 31). Apparently the families had been told that the images would not be seen in the southern states, but were later used on the cover of a widely-available paperback publication. Did Evans feel the need for consent forms?!? He probably felt, as many journalists do, that what he was revealing through his images was much bigger than the individual lives portrayed, and thus privacy concerns were sacrificed in favour of more global issues.

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