Walker Evans and James Agee collaborated and traveled to Alabama from July to August of 1936 to work on a article commissioned by a Federal government agency and Fortune magazine to feature the poor white cotton farmers in the South (Rule). Their commissioning editor had a hard time finding a host for the two and ended up settling in a place close to the three tenant families. The fruit of their work while in the South includes the book “Let us now Praise Famous Men”. After closely examining the handsomely structured book, Agee’s wok can be assumed to be anything but reportage. On the contrary, Evan’s graphical contributions to the literature in the form of photographs appear to be much more difficult to decipher. The photo of a man on the cover in particular creates curiosity as to what the photo wish to imply in connection to the context of the book. I for instance wonder what the man in the picture represents as there were no caption or description about the photo can be found anywhere in the cover. The lack of information about Evan’s photos in the book creates a shroud of mystery as to what they are trying to imply, as if they were there to be interpreted by the reader according to their own perspectives. As a reader, I tend to question Evan’s intentions whether the absence of verbal representation was intentionally done to make me burrow deeper into the context of the graphics and relate them to Agee’s writings. This paper aims to provide a self-reflection on Evan and Agee’s work by stating interpretations out of my own perspective.
Reading the images from the book would mean scrutinizing every single possible story behind them. Since there were no captions or description of the images, I could only rely on my imaginative reasoning to be able to understand the message that the images are trying to tell me. Evan’s photograph of a man looking straight to the camera starts the cover of the book. The way the shot was made almost made me believe that I am looking at a vintage version of a men’s casual wear ad in a high-fashion magazine. However, that is not the case the image does not imply the luxury of a higher lifestyle, but a complete contrary. The weariness clearly shows on the man’s expression as if he telling me that what I am seeing is just a fraction of the more depressing images that I would encounter as I go along reading the book. The image was presented in a manner that it provides a glimpse of what to expect inside the book. As a reader encountering the cover image for the first time, it is giving me impression that the book will bring me to a realization that the American dream is not as bright in the older days.
Going further into the book, I saw this photograph of a family that also didn’t had any description on them. Looking closely at the image, I came to an epiphany that the image conveys struggle, poverty and depression. Even though the images are in black and white, the unsanitary living condition is very much obvious. The boy without pants, the little girl’s dress that I could only assumed to have been worn for several days already because of the obvious spots of dirt in it. It also appears that the family is all not wearing any protective cover on their feet (except the grandmother sitting at the far right) and that implies the family’s lack of material possession. This observation can also be back-up by the fact that during the time the photos were taken, the place does not have running water and electricity. In addition, another photo establishes my assumption of the family’s lack of material possession by looking at the photo of the house’s kitchen. A busted chair, a few pots and buckets hanging on the wall simply tells how the family struggles from lacking the most essential tools for a descent living.
Evans strongly believes that these observations no longer need to be reiterated in text because the photos already speak for themselves. The photos were arranged and placed in the book in such a way that it implies a journey similar to telling a story of what the author saw during the duration of their stay in Alabama. The photos were placed in the book in conjunction to the structure of Agee’s texts. It is like telling a story of a town and showing me as a reader that if I were there are that moment I would be looking at a reality that most modern American’s today are not aware of. It opened my eyes to the truth just by reading the images that I should be thankful that I am living in this era of iPhone and Xbox. That no matter how I complain about my allowance I am still far luckier than those people in the picture.
Evans’s photos in the book were presented in a sublime and dramatic fashion that some readers might perceive to be exaggerated. However, the images are not just graphical representation of the book or Agee and Evans’s project because they are graphical testament to the truth about depression. An example of that is the photo that appears to be a shallow grave with a bowl sitting on top of it. This saddening image insinuates a graphical context of grief. That these three tenant families might not be able to afford a descent funeral service and the only option is for them to bury their departed in the backyard. At first, the book looked like just an ordinary fiction for me and I am expecting to see cowboys and Wild West in the background. However, I was not prepared to find that the following images are depictions of depression and struggle for survival. I did not expected to see a photo of what looked like a man lying on the floor with only his feet protruding from the blanket covering his body up to his face. The bandaged right foot signifies a traumatic experience obtained from working in the cotton farm.
Evans and Agee’s venture assumed proportions that their commissioning employers did not intend. This is because of the resulting text and images that went out of FSA’s journalistic expectations. The intended essay instead grew into a lengthy essay that speaks the concept of documentary. Everything from the text to the images is part of Agee and Evans’s portrayal of reality. Despite having no captions to describe the photos, the images and Agee’s texts are intertwined together in a naked realism approach. It is Agee’s intention to provide the text, for Evans to show images and for me as the reader to provide the perspectives. For example, the passage “The odors of all the dirt that in the course of time can accumulate in a quilt and mattress. Odors of staleness from clothes hung and hid away, not washed” (Bartholomae and Petrosky 129). This passage can be linked to one of Evan’s photo of a family and the iron bed showing up in the number of Evans’s photos in the book. The smothering dirt from the bed and the clothes of the people in the photo best describe Agee’s texts.
Given the connection between the passage and images found in Evans’s photographs, it is apparent that there is a need for the reader to read the entire text and use the images as an alternative source of understanding. Agee’s texts were written in a poetic approach, which the average reader could not easily grasp. It is clear to this point that the reason Evans did not include captions to the photos is because he wanted the reader to create his own interpretations. One could read Agee’s texts, but never to easily translate it through imagination. Therefore, the images are essential to the reader’s understanding of Agee’s texts because the substantial depiction of its context is found on Evans’s photographs. The previous passage conveys the contextual definition of what the author perceived in his visions. However, Evans’s photos were placed on the pages not to illustrate, but to represent the context of Agee’s writings.
Bartholomae, David, and Tony Petrosky. Ways of Reading: Words and Images. New York, USA: Bedford, 2003. Print.
Bartholomae, David, and Tony Petrosky. "Let us now Praise Famous Men." Ways of Reading: Words and Images. New York, USA: Bedford, 2003. 129. Print.
Rule, Vera. "Review: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee and Walker Evans." guardiannews.com. The Guardian, 18 Aug. 2001. Web. 9 Jan. 2013.