Eudora Welty and the photography of the South

I mentioned yesterday that I wanted to write about a literary background for photography, not just my photography, but how it shaped a landscape for others as well.  When I first picked up the book, The Well and the Mine, by Gin Phillips, I was attracted to the cover photograph.  As it was a staff pick at Elliott Bay, and a signed copy, I was happy to carry it home.  Sometime during my reading of it, I saw that the cover photograph was one by Eudora Welty.  This was a surprise to me as I was not then aware of her considerable talent and early devotion to photography.  I knew Eudora Welty only through her marvelous novels and short stories.  She makes this comment about photography: “Life doesn’t hold still……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”.  Traveling and photographing throughout the South during the Great Depression gave Welty the time to examine the lives of others and to hold those moments still….as if to gather them for a later harvest in her stories. 

The cover photograph, along with the time and place of the story, planted a thought…..and then came the opportunity to take a road trip through Alabama by making a wide arc before my final destination in the Florida panhandle.  While driving I remembered the other great photographers of the era and decided that Hale County was my destination.  I had no particular spot that I wanted to visit, I just wanted to see the country they had seen.  This means getting off the highway and searching for ever smaller roads.  There were no interstates, shopping malls or travel plazas in 1935.  I needed to find red clay roads. 

I had only a day to wander, and I didn’t create a photographic masterpiece.  No matter…….my intention was to travel in the footsteps of the Masters for a bit….to get my own sense of Gin Phillips’ physical and emotional landscape in The Well and the Mine.   I knew, too, that Walker Evans’ masterpiece of the Fields family on their porch was photographed in Hale county.  I wanted to find those porches, the sharecropper’s shacks.  Not that porch or that shack, just a general feel for the time.  I stopped at high noon in front of a dilapidated old crossroads store to make a couple of photographs.  There were two stray dogs there and blazing light, little else.  I made the landscape shot, then went closer and photographed some details on the storefront: the narrow strips of siding with inumerable coats of paint, a shutter with a horseshoe, vines covering the sides and growing over a doorway. 

Fast forward to my return to Seattle.  While browsing through photography books in Elliott Bay, I picked up a new volume on Walker Evans.  The page fell open to a photograph titled  Sprott Store, Hale County, Alabama.   I was stunned.  There was the the building I photographed.  There was the horseshoe.  The facade had a second story at that time, but there it was…..right at the intersection of those three dirt roads.   Life did hold still for me in that moment, the intervening 80 years fell away and my heart was connected to that landscape, that time, those photographers.    The literature of place and time was the underpinning for my journey and a deeper understanding of place and subject.  That is its own reward.  All else is an embarrassment of riches.  As if to prove that point, at Christmas last year I was given an old copy of Walker Evans’ volume that accompanied his Museum of Modern Art collection  in New York.  The cover photograph:  Sprott Store.  Imagine the surprise when I recounted this story to the unsuspecting giver.


Bottle Tree, Eudora Welty, a scene later depicted in her short story "Livvie".

 For additional images from Walker Evans and my photograph of Sprott Store, please click on “Walker Evans, etc.” in the menu bar under the blog title.


7 Responses to “Eudora Welty and the photography of the South”

  1. November 12, 2009 at 4:09 am

    I love this blog and the very idea that you are writing about the influence of words on life/art.

    Years ago, I read The Things They Carried, (sorry, but I can’t get an underline to work), by Tim O’Brien, and it prompted a 6-year odyssey creating “The Portable Universe,” a body of work that binds women’s lives from cradle to grave through portraiture and image of the things they carry as they face the known and the unknown. The carrying of things is something all women do; have always done, and it connects women’s lives without prejudice. Thin women, fat women, educated, uneducated, immigrants, and exiles.

    The curators at Ellis Island’s Museum and those at Angel Island were treasures in the exploration of what immigrants brought into this country to start new lives. Anne Frank packed a diary instead of clothing.

    “Memories were more important than dresses,” she wrote.

    I photograph to make the story matter.

    • November 12, 2009 at 12:51 pm

      Honey….Your project has always captivated me. I can’t wait to see the end result, but I’ll be tickled to follow it along, too. Certainly, the story does matter, but your photographs are equally as important. I think you and I have the same impulse to add a
      deeper LAYER to the story by creating photographs that honor the stories we want to tell.


  2. November 12, 2009 at 10:42 am

    Fascinating posting. I love where you are going with this.

  3. November 12, 2009 at 12:33 pm

    I remember you sharing in one of Rick’s classes about looking for texture, feelings, emotions – telling a story with your images. To have photographed that old building – to see it in print – to receive it as a gift… it just takes one’s breath away. Thank you….

  4. November 12, 2009 at 12:48 pm

    Honey, Marilyn, and Karen,
    Thank you ladies for your comments. The exchange of ideas among caring and involved people is the greatest reward of this blog. (Such an inelegant word, no?) Thank you for taking the time to make a comment. It reinforces my commitment to continue to explore these ideas.


  5. 6 Ranger Poole
    November 12, 2009 at 4:51 pm


    Great thoughts…eloquent writing. There’s magic in the marriage of beautiful imagery and elegant narrative. You’ve got the groove, lady…keep on keep’n on… Ranger Poole 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

my website...galleries, other writing,

Flypaper Textures

Flypaper Textures

Trafalgar Square Horse Books

November 2009


News on the go

%d bloggers like this: