Monday, April 13, 2009

Eudora Welty, Photographer, on Her Centennial

Nearly 30 years ago now, at my college graduation, I saw Eudora Welty presented with an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from Columbia University--just one of a whole wheelbarrow full of laurels she received through the years. Most accrued from her writing career, including the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Everybody has a surprise in his or her background. A few years ago, I thought that Welty’s was her late (post-60) affair with hardboiled detective novelist Ross Macdonald (of the wonderful Lew Archer series). I didn’t guess that Welty’s talents might extend in another direction besides writing.

Over the winter, while visiting an exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York (MCNY) on the Archdiocese of New York, I also got to see a smaller—but in its way, equally eye-opening—exhibit on Welty as a photographer. It closed at the MCNY a while ago, but this month it’s moved back down to the author’s home state, in Jackson.

If you don’t have the cash to head down there, you can still some choice examples from the show in an article by T.A. Frail from the April issue of Smithsonian Magazine. Today, on the 100th anniversary of her birthday, I thought it would be appropriate to examine this little-noticed part of her career.

Take a look at the photo accompanying this post, Sunday Morning. It’s not agenda-driven photojournalism, in any sense, but it does something exhilarating in its own way. The white dress of the young African-American girl testifies to her innocence—the humanity she shares with others, denied at nearly every turn by white society in the pre-civil rights era.

Whether taken in her own Deep South or the New York where she came in the 1930s as a graduate student and aspiring writer, Welty’s photographs reminded viewers of the full range of what Franklin Roosevelt called “the forgotten man.”

Considering her relatively privileged background, Welty’s work is all the more impressive for its lack of sentimentality and condescension. She is an example of an artist whose hobby served not as a distraction from her life’s calling—the short stories, novels, reviews and memoir that constitute her legacy over more than nine decades—but rather enhanced it. Her description in One Writer’s Beginnings (1984) of what the discipline of photography taught her is precise, like her work itself:

“Photography 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 had. Making pictures of people in all sorts of situations, I learned that every feeling waits upon its gesture; and I had to be prepared to recognize this moment when I saw it…And I felt the need to hold transient life in words—there's so much more of life that only words can convey— strongly enough to last me as long as I lived."


Art said...

I love the photograph. THanks for sharing!

MikeT said...

No problem. The exhibition provided a wealth of material from which to draw.