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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’
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
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
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
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
Doylestown, 215-340-9800. "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,"
features 76 Evans photographs and documentation. $10; $7 students.
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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