Organized by the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center
University of Texas at Austin, Ulrich Keller, Curator
In August of 1936, two staffers from Fortune magazine, writer James Agee (1909–1955) and photographer Walker Evans (1903–1975), made arrangements to stay at the home of an “average white” sharecropper-family in Hale County, Alabama. For the next 21 days, they strove to produce a collaborative work aimed directly at the Great Depression’s social problems, while also pushing the limits of literature and photography. As Agee was keenly aware, the project was, from the start, fraught with ambiguities:
It seems to me curious . . . to pry intimately into the lives of an undefended . . . 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 in the name of ‘honest journalism’ . . .
Agee and Evans’ strategy for sidestepping the trap of gratuitous voyeurism rested on maintaining absolute respect for the individuals documented and on avoiding the preachy suggestion of “improving” their lives through class acculturation and government relief programs, while replacing the gossipy storytelling of contemporary journalism with strenuously objective observation. The writer’s “unassisted, weaponless consciousness” and the photographer’s technical, clinical recording apparatus were to produce a new art of description that shunned the conventions of commercially dramatized narrative.
Rejected by Fortune but eventually published in 1941 as a book titled Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the result of Agee and Evans’ collaboration is now recognized as among the most important studies of American cultural history and the art of observation. With Agee’s original manuscript and Evans’ vintage prints, the exhibition examines the parallels of two artists in different genres examining the same subject matter. Evans’ poetic depictions of rural traditions seamlessly interconnect with Agee’s impassioned, Whitmanesque soliloquies. The pair’s insistence on descriptive clarity allowed what Agee called the “beauty” of the sharecroppers’ homes and lives to emerge. Through Evans’ camera eye, this beauty—in the order and tranquility of a tenant family’s kitchen, in the spartan alignment of eating utensils across a cabin wall, and in the earnest face of a sharecropper’s wife—continues to be palpable today.
For the 1960 republication of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Evans re-edited his picture section, doubling the number of plates from 31 to 62. Exploring the differences between the two editions, the exhibition sheds new light onto Evans’ changing perception of his work through his own editorial and philosophical revision. Soon after the publication of the second edition, Evans sold all pertinent photographs and manuscripts in his possession. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, composed exclusively from these original materials now preserved at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin, reasserts, 60 years after the fact, the still-poignant truths of Agee and Evans’ vision.
NUMBER OF WORKS: 84
TOUR DATES: July 2002 - December 2005