Walker Evans and Depression Photography: Searching for Truth in Art

Lucille Burroughs, Daughter of a Sharecropper. Hale County, Alabama. 1936.

I read this Wall Street Journal article over the weekend. It took me back to this time two years ago, sitting in an empty corner of the seventh floor of the library at school, looking out the window at the rain, tapping the keys on the laptop I had rented, waiting for the words to come.

The Walker Evans photograph alone could hold my attention all day. I often found myself stuck in the opening pages of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, looking into the eyes of George Gudger (Floyd Burroughs) while he stared back at me. The words took forever to translate to the page. I found that no matter what I wrote, it was never as true as the photograph, but no matter how little I wrote, I was still chipping away at something vastly important. Perhaps I got hold of a little bit of James Agee there, refusing to forgive myself for anything but perfection while knowing that that was impossible.

These photographs came into my life at just the right time. I had thrown away all I had known before and decided to start over. I came to them seeking understanding of an academic nature. They certainly offered that to me in a limited way. Through them, I came to understand the nature of academic inquiry. But they left me with questions upon questions upon questions–about the South, about the Depression, about families, about literature, about photography, about poverty, about hopelessness. They filled me up with questions when nothing else seemed to push me far enough.

Seeing this photograph printed in the paper, lying on my desk at home, I felt displaced all over again. Sure, I have a real, physical home for the first time in five years. The questions still plague me though. Only now I’m not attempting answers. I’m hardly writing, hardly searching through anthologies, and barely finishing what I start.

I miss the search terribly. I miss the attempt, even when I knew that it would never turn out quite right. Because now things turn out wrong all the time, but that’s because I’m not even trying anymore.

 

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