Creating subjects: Response to “Let us now praise famous men”

For our photographic narratives course, we’ve been asked to respond to Let us now praise famous men by James Agee and Walker Evans. The book includes Evans photos (see below) and Agee’s writing which borders on poetry in syntax. Throughout my reading I hear Agee’s apology to the family and 1794_1794_348a10dfa468c7ab269784ddc04people he met while on mission from Fortune magazine to document a farming family and community in the rural South during the Depression. He introduces his subjects as “ignorant and helpless rural family” (p. 7). He talks about his experience scaring a young Black couple as he runs after them. He goes to great length to define and locate the breasts of the women of the family, without giving nearly as much attention to the bodies of the men. And he couches all of this with “I am only human” (p. 11). At no point in the reading does he acknowledge the larger conditions that create what he sees as helpless people, or that create his perspective of them, or that perpetuate their poverty.

But Agee tries to tell their story through his own view of it to the best of his ability. He describes the parting of Annie Mae (pictured above) and Emma (her sister) with compassion for their separation as Emma was required to follow her husband for work away from her family. This story evoked Malinowski in my mind as Agee describes not only the intimate details of Emma and Annie Mae’s husband George’s flirtation, but his own draw towards Emma. He also wrote like an anthropologist in field notes, with what could only have been frenzied writing sessions to catch all the details as well as stream of consciousness that fills his pages. It is clear from Agee’s writing that he felt close to the family he lived with for three months and documented.

The photographic and narrative process pokes though Agee’s writing as he describes setting up the camera with Evans and preparing for shots. The cameras they used at the time required extensive set up and a long wait to take the picture. Thus, most of the photos in the book (if not all of them) are staged. There is some gravitas to this sort of photography and these two young outsider men arriving in a quiet and relatively insular town. This leads to my general conclusion about the book and about the potential of using photography as a research tool or to develop narratives: the photographer/researcher has to put themselves into their work rather than try to take themselves out in order to understand the many levels of interaction at play.

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