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The Story of a Photograph: Walker Evans, Ellie Mae Burroughs, and the Great Depression (Kindle Singles) [Kindle Edition]

Jerry L. Thompson
3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (24 customer reviews)

Kindle Price: $1.99

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Book Description

Walker Evans’s iconic photograph of Ellie Mae Burroughs of Hale County, Alabama, made while he was working with James Agee, has become a memorable symbol of the Great Depression. How it came to be, and what consequences it provoked, make for a fascinating tale.


Although the Great Depression brought suffering to the cities in equal measure, the images of rural poverty and despair remain the more searing memories of the worst economic collapse in American history. This is largely due to the small band of photographers who recorded the miseries of the poor, under the auspices of the New Deal’s Farm Security Administration. Notable among them were Margaret Bourke-White, Dorothea Lange, Arthur Rothstein, and Walker Evans. The story that Jerry Thompson tells here is of Evans’s iconic photograph of Ellie Mae Burroughs of Hale County, Alabama. Evans made it while working with James Agee on assignment from Fortune magazine. It is not only a great picture technically but has become a memorable symbol of difficult times.


Jerry L. Thompson is a working photographer who occasionally writes about photography. During the last three years of Walker Evans’s life he was Evans’s principal assistant and, for a time, printer of photographs. He lived with Evans off and on from late 1972 until Evans’s death in April 1975. From 1973 until 1980 he was a member of the faculty of Yale University. Thompson has also written The Last Years of Walker Evans; a book of essays, Truth and Photography; and the introduction to Walker Evans at Work. He lives in Amenia, New York.

Editorial Reviews Review

Walker Evans, renowned for his slice-of-life photographs of Depression-era families, wasn't much for politics. But he knew a good deal when he saw one--so he jumped at the offer made by James Agee, a writer at Fortune, to use the best new equipment available to illustrate a series of articles on white Southern tenant farmers in 1936. According to Jerry Thompson, Evans' former assistant and author of The Story of a Photograph, the results enabled Evans to visually define a critical period in American history--whether he intended to or not. (The Evans-Agee collaboration eventually produced Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which did not sell well in either man's lifetime but has become a photojournalistic classic.) In the stark image most often associated with Evans' work, a young woman in a simple housedress stares down the lens. Ellie Mae Burroughs has a face that speaks volumes: of struggle, strength, and world-weariness. The story of how she came to pose for this iconic portrait leads Thompson to thoughtful, informed ruminations on the craft and purpose of creating art. "In good poetry, and especially in Evans's pictures, both the tenor and the vehicle matter," he writes. "Evans's best pictures are fact and symbol at the same time." --Mia Lipman

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Product Details

  • File Size: 1906 KB
  • Print Length: 49 pages
  • Publisher: Now and Then Reader (May 16, 2012)
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B00846931Y
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Not Enabled
  • Lending: Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #190,697 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

3.9 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
42 of 43 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The fascinating story behind the photograph May 24, 2012
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
We've all seen the photographs of Depression-era people and families in this country. Author Jerry L. Thompson takes us behind the scenes of one well-known photograph and examines the lives of both the photographer and his subject. Walker Evans was a talented photographer who was just starting out in his chosen profession when he hooked up with writer James Rufus Agee, and the two of them headed for the American South on a project for Fortune Magazine. In 1936, while on this assignment, Evans' photographed Ellie Mae Burroughs, the young wife of a tenant farmer in Hale County, Alabama. This haunting photograph would in time become a symbol of poverty and human tenacity during the Great Depression.

The author covered the lives of Evans and Agee and the impact that their work for Fortune magazine would have, even long after all the principals involved had passed on. As an avid amateur photographer, I was extremely impressed to read how Evans worked with both a large-format view camera and a smaller Leica. His most serious work - portraits - was done with the view camera, which required a lot of skill and patience. The use of flash bulbs for fill-in flash was just coming into play in the early 1930s, and was a hit-or-miss proposition with the comparatively crude equipment of the day. Coupled with the vagaries of the equipment of that era was the fact that Evans' darkroom was a thousand miles away, which meant that he was "shooting in the dark," so to speak.

I was also impressed to learn that Evans and Agee didn't just pop in and ask to take a quick series of photos, then leave to find other subjects. In some cases, as with the Burroughs family, they actually moved into their home and got to know the family, even participating in their daily life.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
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As one who has long admired the FSA photos that make up a record of a key portion of our American heritage, it was good to find author and photographer Jerry L. Thompson's The Story of a Photograph: Walker Evans, Ellie Mae Burroughs, and the Great Depression offered here as a Kindle edition.

The author, who worked as his principal assistant during the last years of Walker Evans's life, takes us from the early years of Evans' life to his death in April 1975. I've always identified this iconic photo, usually known by its title "Alabama Tenant Farmer Wife" with the name Allie Mae Burroughs, but Jerry Thompson's explanation in this book clarifies that difference quite well:

"Evans's best pictures are fact and symbol at the same time. One of these best pictures--and certainly one of his best known--is the close portrait of Ellie Mae Burroughs. (She's sometimes called Allie Mae Burroughs, and in Evans's 1941 collaboration with the writer James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, she is given the name Annie Mae Gudger)."

We find that in his early years as a creative talent who began by wanting to write, Evans was gratified to read that his works dealt effectively in metaphor, and was particularly pleased to find this comment "not in the pages of U.S. Camera or Popular Photography but in a magazine of general (and rather high-toned) cultural appeal."

Walker Evans began to take photos in the late 1920s, and as early as 1929 was trying to establish himself as an artistic photographer. He had taken snapshots during a European trip, and upon his return to New York, he published his first images in 1930.
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4.0 out of 5 stars good book January 28, 2014
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if you like Walker Evens photos and want to learn more about him the book is a great start in to him.
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3.0 out of 5 stars Not Interesting January 7, 2014
By Mert
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I bought this kindle book because I am interested n pictures and Appalachian living in the depression era. That is not what it is about, the picture is quite deceiving! It is about the photographer and his journey to and in his trade.
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4.0 out of 5 stars OK story November 8, 2013
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Good book but not what I was expecting overall. I did learn a lot about the picture and the times and area it was taken
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4.0 out of 5 stars very interesting September 7, 2013
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As a history teacher, I use pictures often to tell a story of the time period we are studying. Having the background to the picture definitely enriches the analysis process for the students.
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3.0 out of 5 stars Interseting June 12, 2013
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I enjoyed reading this article. It was informative about the ways photography was done to capture the history of the Great Depression, but nothing unusual or thought provoking, at least for me.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Nice complement to a teacher's understanding June 5, 2013
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I've been teaching the photograph for years in AP U.S. History, and it's nice to have an even deeper understanding.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars Good for a photographer enthusiast
It was not quite what I expected...interesting but to be truthful, not really in my realm of interest for non-fiction
Published 6 months ago by Vicky
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Very good read. A must for anyone interested in photography as a craft, hobby or just enjoyment.
Published 7 months ago by Miss_Fitt
5.0 out of 5 stars Elegant look at Evans' Art
If you are interested in either the nature of art itself, or how it manifests itself in documentary photography, you'll want this. Read more
Published on March 30, 2013 by Readin' and Rockin'
1.0 out of 5 stars How to take a picture in the 1930's
I had hoped this book would speak to the poverty after the depression of 1929. It did not. Gave huge amount of information related to the "how tos" of photography. Read more
Published on March 25, 2013 by Dee Dee Dinah
1.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing
When chosing this book, I was mistaken about its content. Thinking it was the stories behind the photographs, I found it to be a similar to a text book on photography. Read more
Published on February 18, 2013 by Janice C. Pontarelli
4.0 out of 5 stars Great Depression Photograph
As a collector of original 19th and 20th Century photography, I've owned a number of FSA Depression era photographs by Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and Arthur Rothstein. Read more
Published on February 9, 2013 by Amazon Customer
4.0 out of 5 stars "It's true dear."
Ellie Mae Burroughs is the uneducated, poor wife a tenant farmer, yet her observation of the work of two brilliant students is the most astute of them all. Read more
Published on January 17, 2013 by Amelia Gremelspacher
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