The Story of a Photograph: Walker Evans, Ellie Mae Burroughs, and the Great Depression (Kindle Singles) Kindle Edition
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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.
Several decades later, Evans and Agee and others who did similar work during the Great Depression came under criticism for "parading the nakedness, disadvantage and humiliation of those lives" in the name of journalism and for money. It was interesting to read of various comments and defenses of their work over the years.
Overall, "The Story of a Photograph" was a fascinating tale of a famous photograph and the people behind it.
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. He showed his images in 1931 at the John Becker Gallery, and in 1933 at the then new Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).
During the Great Depression, Evans began to photograph for the Resettlement Administration, later known as the Farm Security Administration (FSA), documenting workers and architecture in the Southeastern states. In 1936 he traveled with writer James Agee to Hale County, Alabama, and he and Agee lived on and off in the four-room cabin of Floyd and Allie Mae Burroughs for several weeks in August 1936. The family owned nothing. Everything in their lives was leased from their landlord, as Burroughs was a cotton `sharecropper' and as such he had to give his landlord half his cotton and corn crop, and then pay off any other debts incurred during the year for their seed, fertilizer, food and medicine. By the end of 1935, the family finished the year $12 in debt.
But it's that photo of Allie Mae Burroughs that has become one of the most iconic images representing the Great Depression. In 1936 she was was a twenty-seven-year-old mother, homemaker, and farmer, living with her husband Floyd and four children in a small house not far from where her father lived with his younger wife and second family. Floyd had work in a sawmill, which he enjoyed, but Allie Mae felt that farm life would allow the family to have more food, including milk and butter. For those who have had the opportunity to see the images of this woman of 27 up close, we see her furrowed brow, the early and premature wrinkles around her eyes, and her eyes themselves, framed against the bare wood siding of her home. Her eyes show that she deeply aware of Walker Evans' camera and his presence, but she could have never understand the significances of the photos being taken and the social reform they would help to accomplish. This from the author stands out:
"Evans died in 1975. Ellie Mae Burroughs died in 1979. No one old enough to have a clear memory of the Burroughs farmhouse in August 1936 is still alive. Living memory of the summer visit there has vanished, along with the visitors and their hosts. Recent visitors report that the houses themselves have collapsed into the Alabama dirt."
The collaboration between Walker Evans as photographer and James Agee as writer resulted in one of the most provocative books in American literature, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941). While at work on this book, the two also conceived another less well known but equally important book project entitled Many Are Called. This three-year photographic study of subway passengers made with a hidden camera was first published in 1966, with an introduction written by Agee in 1940.
Author Jerry Thompson provides us with copies of these photos in this 47-page Kindle edition. His descriptions of the settings, the people involved, and even the range of photo equipment used, added to creating a three dimensional image of the people and the settings during the 1930s. This is a highly recommended and absorbing read for those interested in 20th Century history and photography alike.
All in all I found it to be a good read.
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