Friday, June 29, 2007

"Capturing Transience"

Eudora Welty, Sunday School, Holiness Church, Jackson 1935-1936 (click to enlarge)

The Wichita Art Museum, though small, has hosted several nice travelling exhibits since we moved into its neighborhood two years ago. The just-opened "Passionate Observer: Eudora Welty Among Artists of the Thirties" (exhibition catalogue here) may be the best of the lot, and this magical photograph perhaps the best in the exhibit.

Welty is best-known as a writer, but before that she was an accomplished photographer who, during the Depression, found work in the Farm Security Administration's photography program charged with documenting the living conditions of the rural poor. The work of others in that group were and are better-known than that of Welty--Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange are the most prominent, and samples of their work are in this exhibit. Given what I saw today, though, I frankly wonder why that is the case. Not that Evans and Lange are slouches, but that Welty's work is both distinctive and powerful. It feels less "documentary" in nature, more "artful." You can see why, according to Welty, it was photography that led her to become a writer.

It's also quite interesting to me that, though all the photographers here (all of whom are white) have at least a couple of pictures of black people, only Welty has what amount to portraits of her black subjects. And they are stunning, powerful pictures, full of their subjects' dignity and humanity and Welty's respect for them.

Welty's best-known photograph may be Home by Dark, Yalobusha Co.: it's been used on the Vintage paperback edition of Faulkner's Go Down, Moses and Edward P. Jones' The Known World. That photograph is in the exhibit, but I want to spend some time the picture at the beginning of this post and a couple of others that caught my eye.

Photography, Welty once said (according to an exhibition card),

taught me that to be able to capture transience, by being ready to click the shutter at the crucial moment, was the greatest need I have.
Transience, of course, is the medium of narrative, and what I found myself drawn to in Welty's pictures is the strong sense of story they have. But the stories she wants to tell are not of these people's poverty. She wants to tell the stories of these people--people, both black and white, whom she grew up and lived among, whom she knows intimately, and whose trust she hasn't even had to earn but simply has.

Consider, for example, this picture, "Side Show, State Fair" (the italics and quotation marks are hers). Three boys, looking off-frame, each face registering a different response to whatever it is they see. They become our "side show" as we watch them and wonder at their wonder or incredulity. We wonder what in their pasts led them to respond as they do here; more, we wonder what will become of their responses once they approach, or choose not to approach, the whatever-it-is that has their attention. It isn't a complex picture, but it provides the seeds for any number of narratives.

There's another picture in the exhibit that I haven't been able to find online but which is worth the attempt to describe. Called Window Shopping, Grenada (Grenada is a small town just north of Jackson, Mississippi), it shows a small group of women in the foreground looking in a store window; in the background, visible in the space between the women and the window they gaze into and leaning against a storefront further down the same block, are three men. They don't appear to be looking at the women, but they are positioned in such a way that they could also be the subjects of the women's "window shopping." Or perhaps they are, discreetly, of course, engaging in a bit of window shopping with regard to the women. It's hard to know just how much arranging went into the getting of this shot, but its feel is certainly one of happenstance, of the Lucky Shot.

This photograph (titled Preacher and Leaders of the Holiness Church, Jackson) and the photo that leads off this post are the ones I kept returning to in the exhibit. In each, the sun's various entry points into the pictures become glowing, gaseous-looking entities, seeming to emphasize the idea of "holiness." But, again, ponder this: it's mid-1930s Mississippi. A white woman is behind the camera. Taking a picture like this. I'm not sure which is more extraordinary--the image, or the circumstances of its taking.

For Welty's own thoughts on this and similar moments in her pictures, click on "Back cover" at this link.

Wichita is the penultimate stop for this exhibit; it has been touring the South, with a couple of stops in the Midwest, since 2003. In November, though, it will head to the Kansas City (MO) Public Library. Those of you in the area will want to make sure you see this.


Winston said...

Roomie (also from Mississippi) is a huge Eudora Welty fan and student. She even used a Welty quote in the intro to one of the books she published.

Where have you been? Haven't seen you coming 'round much lately. Hope all is well...

dd said...

My family is spread all over the continent these days. Many years ago when we happened to be in the same place at the same time we traveled through time together via film and art. We viewed a film together - "The Color Purple" and then by coincidence took in an exhibition of Welty's photographs on view in the museum near by. It was very timely since they captured the time when my parents were children. It may be the first time we "experienced" art "together." Welty was a true artist.

John B. said...

I've been a bit out of pocket relative to the blogosphere--more extended-family obligations. But I think things have settled down a bit, which means that I'll be more frequent a visitor. I hope you'll ask Roomie for me if she's of the opinion that looking at Welty's pictures is like reading her fiction, and vice versa.

Thank you for finding your way here and leaving a comment. As a teacher, I once witnessed something similar to what you describe happening with your family: a couple of years ago, some of my Humanities students accompanied me to the Nelson-Atkins in Kansas City. One of those students was joined by his father, and together they spent a lot of time discussing individual works. The next time the class met, I mentioned to my student that I was impressed by things that I heard his father say, and my student said that before that day he'd never heard his father talk like that, that his father revealed a side of himself that my student had never known before. As moving as it is for me to see my students learn things, this sort of thing was even more moving: sometimes, education can isolate us from loved ones; here, though, education brought people together in a completely unanticipated way.

R. Sherman said...

Learn something everyday, as they say. I never knew about Welty's photographic past. I've got to try to get to KC for the exhibit.

Thanks for alerting us.


Winston said...

Will do, John, just as soon as I can find her and she can find her glasses. That's her eternal quest...

Winston said...

With only small images on screen to look at, she remarked that while they are good and do capture some of the essence of the subjects that might be hard to verbalize, that for her, Welty's words are so alive and rich that even photographs can't compete. Don't shoot me, I'm just the conduit here...

John B. said...

No shooting from me. In fact, Roomie's comment tracks nicely with something I saw in the exhibit regarding Welty's own feelings about the fuller capacity for writing to convey a subject's essence.

Pam said...

What a treat to come and find this - I love Welty's comment on photography and transience - odd, to capture a moment forever (seems a bit counter intuitive). I'd love to be able to see this exhibit - what a treat.

I re-read her recently, the first time since moving to the south. Living 'down here' makes her words seem different somehow.