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This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the October 2, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Evans’ Songs of Praise

During July and August 1936 Walker Evans and I were

traveling in the middle south of this nation, and we were engaged

in what, even from the first, has seemed to me rather a curious piece

of work. It was our business 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." So writes James

Agee in the preface to his unique non-fiction memoir, "Let Us

Now Praise Famous Men."

The magazine article never saw light of day, but eventually a collaborative

volume, the product of 21 days the pair spent living with a sharecropper

family in Hale County, Alabama, was published. Agee’s book opens —

without explanation or captions — with a suite of Walker Evans’

vision-changing photographs.

It begins with the standing figure of an elderly landowner, facing

the reader in his crumpled suite, seersucker slacks, white shirt,

and figured tie, opposite the inside front cover. A smile plays around

his mouth. The clapboard wall behind him signals the now-familiar

motif of Evans’ vision of the rural south. "Landowner" is

the only well-fed individual represented in the picture essay that

follows.

Evans’ photographs present penetrating and heroic portraits

of men, women, and children, the poorest of the poor. Interleaved

with his "famous men" are the families’ humble dwellings,

their porches, and fields. These staggeringly lucid still life studies

have become visual icons of the spirit of 20th century rural America.

As photography scholar John Szarkowski has observed: "At a time

when faster lenses and films and shutters allowed photographers to

record ever-thinner slices of life, Evans’ pictures were as still

as sculpture."

Rejected by Fortune magazine but eventually published as a book in

1941, "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" was pushed out of public

view almost immediately after publication by America’s entry into

World War II. Out of print by 1948, a new edition of "Let Us Now

Praise Famous Men" was issued by Houghton Mifflin in 1960. The

brilliant Agee had died in 1955, at a mere 45 years of age. But for

the book’s republication, Evans re-edited his picture section, doubling

the number of plates from 31 to 62. Almost 25 years after its inception,

the curious investigative project became a cultural talisman of sorts.

As John Hersey explains, the book became "a kind of Bible,"

especially for bright young Northerners traveling South to work in

the Civil Rights Movement.

Hanging at the James A. Michener Art Museum since July is a riveting

exhibition of Evans’ original prints from "Let Us Now Praise Famous

Men" curated by Evans scholar Ulrich Keller. While those devoted

to the purity of the visual evidence may chafe at Keller’s painstaking

documentation of Evans’ work, other viewers will appreciate this new

dimension of documentary evidence lurking behind Evans eloquent and

iconic photographs.

On Sunday, October 6, the Michener hosts a day-long symposium, organized

in conjunction with the exhibit, that brings together curators, educators,

and a group of noted contemporary photographers to consider Evans’

profound influence on the art of photography. The afternoon session

features area photographers Emmet Gowin, David Graham, Stephen Perloff,

and Michael A. Smith discussing the ways Evans’ accomplishments influenced

their own, in discussion moderated by Michener director Bruce Katsiff.

The exhibit remains on view through Sunday, October 13.

— Nicole Plett

Walker Evans, Michener Art Museum, 138 South Pine Street,

Doylestown, 215-340-9800. "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,"

features 76 Evans photographs and documentation. $10; $7 students.

Walker Evans and His Influence: A Continuing Tradition, day-long

symposium with Jeff Rosenheim and William Earle Williams. Preregister,

$35. Sunday, October 6, 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.


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