Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Walker Evans’ Famous Picture of an Alabama Tenant Farmer’s Wife Is Celebrated and Explained

Walker Evans’ portrait of Ellie Mae Burroughs, an Alabama tenant farmer’s wife, is one of the greatest images in American art. In a new ebook essay, Jerry L. Thompson explains how the photograph happened and why it still resonates today.

From a piece in the Daily Beast...

“He could control the darkness of the shadows collecting in Ellie Mae’s eye sockets and under her chin, but he could not control how she reacted to a large camera being placed so closely to her face. He could not control the pattern of lines beginning to etch themselves into the skin of that young face. He could not control, but only watch, the play of eye tension and mouth tension on that face as he waited for the right instant to click the shutter. And apparently he could not control the length of his close contact with her: he exposed only four sheets of film.” A few lines later, Thompson puts it more bluntly: “Evans took the pictures, but he didn’t make them by himself; he and Ellie Mae made them together, as a collaboration.”
Evans kept two subtly different images from that encounter. The photograph that found its way into the suite of pictures that opens Let Us Now Praise Famous Men shows a worried, quizzical woman. The other image, where she allows herself the ghost of a smile—paradoxically, it seems the sadder of the two pictures—Evans included in American Photographs, the seminal catalog of his 1938 one-man show at the Museum of Modern Art, the first such show ever granted a single photographer by that museum. One of the pictures is taken with flash, and one without. At the time, the technological requirements of using flash with the Deardorff would have meant that Evans had to move very quickly and surely to change strategies on the spur of the moment. The results are two photographs that are similar but different, and different enough to make both of them keepers. An artist may not know what he’s after, but he knows when he’s got it.

No comments: