Saturday, June 30, 2007

Home by Dark: A speculative reading

Eudora Welty stands in front of the ruins of Windsor, Port Gibson, Mississippi. Taken by by Frank H. Lyell. And yes: those are small trees that have taken root on the tops of the columns.

In yesterday's post, I mentioned in passing what might be Welty's most familiar picture, Home by Dark, Yalobusha Co. I can't find a decent-sized online image to link to, so I refer you instead here. I invite you to go there and have a good look at it. I'll wait for you below the fold.

Seeing as I own two books on which this picture appears (and, now that I've added One Time One Place to my Amazon Wish List, will someday own three), I know this photo well. Or, rather, I thought I did. My realization that more is going on in this picture than I had assumed didn't dawn on me at the museum yesterday. Slow of study as I am, it was only some time after I put up yesterday's post and then ran across the image again that I really, you know, looked at it.

Welty's photos' titles tend to be descriptive of their subjects: Here It Comes! Crowd on a Boxcar, Watching a Circus Being Unloaded, for example, pretty much lets you know what you're looking at. Others, like Window Shopping, Grenada, which I described in yesterday's post, are ostensibly descriptive, but as I noted there I think that the title points us in the direction of a more figurative way of thinking about the picture. Still, though, such titles don't make us wonder why they've been given to the image.

Home by Dark, though, is another matter, I think. On its surface, this picture could not be a more simple or tranquil, even clichéd, rural southern scene: a mule-drawn wagon bearing a family on a plumbline-straight dirt road through a field, some woods in the distance forming the horizon. Its title refers to a time of day; more than that, though, it suggests both a destination and a hoped-for arrival time . . . or, perhaps, a deadline.

That latter possibility first suggested itself when I realized for the first time, while noting the twist in the woman's torso as she looks back toward the viewer, that the family on the wagon is African-American. Suddenly, the image's title, its surface tranquility and even clichéd nature were replaced in me by something else--not menace exactly but, certainly, tension. Another, more ominous set of clichés.

As with Welty's other pictures, I cannot say what was involved in its being taken, how much directing Welty engaged in with her subjects prior to taking it. But this one, like the others, has a sense of matter-of-factness to it. Like the others, it simply seeks to portray its subjects as people . . . and it was simply so that, for African-Americans in certain places in the rural South during the Jim Crow era, where one was in relation to one's home as sundown approached had an urgency to it that it did not for whites. This is not opinion but fact; lamentable though that was, the fact remains that, for black people, surveillance was a condition of existence.

Welty's photograph depicts this fact; just as she so often does in her fiction, here she lets us observe this slice of the world without dictating how to think about it. Welty herself, on the back cover of One Time One Place, puts the matter thus, and I'll let her eloquence conclude this post:

I wished no more to indict anybody, to prove or disprove anything by my pictures, than I would have wished to do harm to the people in them, or have expected any harm from them to come to me.


R. Sherman said...

Not that I'm a quick study, inasmuch as I didn't know until ten minutes ago that Welty was a photographer, but I noticed the race of the occupants and the title took on the meaning you describe.

I wonder whether that passes most people by. Unless one has southern roots (my maternal family is from Anniston, Alabama) and has heard stories about what things were like in the South, one doesn't get those connections.

Heck, I remember driving with my parents to Destin, Florida and stopping at gas stations that had "Colored Only" outhouses. That was in 1966.


dd said...

Have you heard of the film "Baby Doll"? It was banned when it first came out in the late 50's or early 60's. It is a very funny and very telling story of the south during that time. Carole Baker, Elia Kazan and Carl Malden.

BTW, thanks for stopping by!