Few books have touched me so deeply as Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941). I first read it as an undergraduate student at Davidson College in the early sixties and was struck by both James Agee's prose and Walker Evans's photographs. Encountering their portrait of white sharecroppers in Hale County, Alabama, was an epiphany. They captured stark poverty through Agee's eloquent prose and Evans's striking photography in a work that was both shocking and beautiful.
A decade later, in the fall of 1972, I began teaching in the American and Afro-American Studies Programs at Yale University and learned that Walker Evans had recently retired from a teaching post there and lived nearby. Shortly after moving to New Haven, I met Walker in the home of our mutual friend Alan Trachtenberg, who was chairman of the American Studies Program. Alan's daughter Lizzie asked me to photograph her with Walker, and I snapped several shots with her camera.
Thus began a treasured friendship. In future visits with Walker we spoke about his love for the American South and about the photographs he had made in my hometown of Vicksburg, Mississippi. There he captured street scenes and Civil War monuments in the Vicksburg National Military Park.
In 1935 both Walker and Ben Shahn photographed the Ray Lum livestock barn in Natchez, Mississippi. I told Walker that my father was a farmer who at that time was buying mules from Lum and that I was working on a film and oral history that featured Lum's life. Strangely, Walker Evans's camera had captured my homeland before my birth through places and people that I would try to understand as a folklorist thirty years later.
As fate would have it, my work as a folklorist led me from Mississippi to New Haven and to a friendship with a man whose work I revered. While at Yale I was part of a circle of friends, all of whom adored Walker. The group included Jerry Thompson and Michael Lesy. Jerry was a gifted photographer who taught photography at Yale. Michael's now classic study Wisconsin Death Trip had recently appeared, and he taught as a visiting professor in the American Studies Program.
In the fall of 1974, I asked Walker if he would let me tape a conversation with him. He invited me to dinner a few days later, and afterwards we spoke. We discussed Walker's background in the Midwest and Chicago and his attraction to the American South. Through his camera lens he captured southern folk culture and documented the region's faces, homes, and landscape. The South's strong sense of place shaped both the images he photographed and his own identity as an artist. The region became a proving ground for his major work. Walker's sensitivity to southern people and their landscape is felt in his photographs of farm life, country fairs, and Civil War battlefields through which he unveils an intimate panorama of the South.
Walker's photographs capture unforgettable images of southern folklore, images that inspired my own work as a folklorist. While photographing families in Mississippi, I often think of Walker, who was there before me. I imagine him visiting small communities and appreciate the grace and care with which he shaped their portraits. My conversation with Walker explores his gift in understanding the South. We discuss a common ground of southern images and their makers. We explore the artist as a witness to folk culture, and our conversation offers a glimpse into Walker's life as a photographer.
Walker Evans, in His Own Words ...
DISCOVERING THE SOUTH
I don't know how to put [my attraction to the South] in words. It has to do with the romantic instinct--its romanticism and history and heritage. The Civil War was a great sort of trauma and historic shock to this country, but it had its romantic side, too, even the music that went with it. The whole horror of those men fighting each other, cousin to cousin, and the legend of Abraham Lincoln and his part in it interested me enormously--not in a scholarly way, because I still don't know much about it. …