James Agee and Walker Evans
Fortune Magazine, in July and August of 1936, sent James Agee and Walker Evans to research a story on sharecropping. In the preface of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Agee describes it as “a curious piece of work.” They were to produce “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,” (IX). James Agee and Walker Evans set out to write and photograph an article for a magazine, and ended up experimenting with the form of the novel itself.
James Agee was born in 1909 in Knoxville, Tennessee, but was in the urban middle class, so ...view middle of the document...
The “article” was over 400 pages of controversial writing and even various book editors refused to publish it as a novel. Finally in 1941 it was published by Mifflin in Massachusetts after the author was forced to take out a few outlawed words in the state. They failed in their original mission to produce an “article,” but undoubtedly presented a “photographic and verbal record” of the average white southern tenant farmer families. By living with three different families for four weeks, Evans depicted their innermost sorrows through his photographs, and Agee portrayed and emboldened their spirit by his written words. The novel itself was an experiment in form, with Evans’ photos all placed in the front without captions, rather than dispersed throughout the novel. Even in the text, Agee continually stops himself mid-description and enters into a stream-of-consciousness describing the difficulties of articulating accurately the tenant families true expressions. For these reasons, it was considered a failure when it was published, but also for the same reasons it was considered an amazing success twenty years later in the 1960s.
In the Preface, Agee conveys that this “is a book only by necessity. More seriously, it is an effort in human actuality, in which the reader is no less centrally involved than the authors and those of whom they tell,” (XI). Agee seems to be reinventing the novel—“the text was written with reading aloud in mind,” (XI). In the Forward, Evans describes Agee as writing “devotedly and incessantly.” Evans goes on to say that everyone in the families becomes enamored with Agee and open up to him in a way that the text depicts precisely.
Evans’ images and Agee’s writings are both intended to convey the same concept, “the divinity of commonplace reality…and the predicaments of human divinity.” (XIV) However, they go about this in different fashions suitable to their specific mediums.
Evans’ photographs are all at the beginning of the book, fifty in number, and have no quotes or captions. The lack of writing attached to the pictures is of particular significance. In Evans’ mind the subjects of the photographs need no explanation, nor could an explanation do the subjects of the photographs any justice, as Agee himself confirms when recognizing his own inability to ’truly’ represent the families. Noticeably absent from the photographs is the photographer himself. In removing himself from the images, the photographs become an experience between the viewer and the images and not the viewer and the photographer and the image. In essence, subjectively Evans is trying to be totally objective. Evans is trying to allow the viewer to experience the feelings of nobility that he felt when he observed the subjects. Furthermore, not all of the pictures are portraits. In including objects, such as a pair of shoes, and buildings, Evans is trying to convey two features of the sharecropper’s...