What’s on our Wall
Photographing Truth Over Beauty
Walker Evans’ photojournalism at its best
In this series, the curatorial team presents one work from the Meural art library we find essential.
Years ago I picked up Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee and Walker Evans. I hesitate to admit that I both a) chose it only for the cover, and b) hardly skimmed it. The cover features a striking image of an impoverished farmer, hinting at all the beautiful squalor hidden inside. These photographs were taken by Walker Evans in the summer of 1936, on assignment by Fortune magazine to document the sharecroppers of the South. Walker was to record their lives in photographs, Agee in words. That cover image—of Floyd Burroughs, farmer and father of four—like many in the book, delivers a crystal clear image of a life, with a glaze of beauty. The image I chose this week—of Allie Mae Burroughs, Floyd’s wife—manages that clarity while dispensing with the beauty. This is the reason I love it.
These images “work” in many ways but most of all because they give us a plausible life. In fact, it can be hard to believe they were taken 80 years ago. Evans’ subjects are so knowable, it doesn’t seem possible they could be so removed in time (for a second, you can believe that they’re contemporary models dressed the part). Bridging such a gap isn’t just a problem for today’s viewer, but Evans himself. Born into wealth, he did not instinctively know the daily struggles of his subjects. It was only through great technique and empathy that he could show their truth.
But, sometimes, beauty gets in the way. When a photographer with the privilege of working for a big New York business magazine gets to go down South, there is the risk of voyeurism. Evans, after all, can leave once the assignment is over. If there’s anything about the photograph of Floyd Burroughs that bothers me, it’s how ideal he looks. His face is well-worn but his curls are perfect, his eyes arresting, he is—dare I say—virile. (This is how I feel about Dorothea Lange’s famous Migrant Mother, from 1936. Why should the face of destitution also be one of beauty? This, I understand, makes for a contested opinion.)
Which brings us to Allie Mae, Floyd’s wife. The hair on her head, unlike her husband’s, isn’t right. Her lips are held in, in tension. Her features yield to asymmetry. But there’s an impressive straightness to her eyebrows and lips, showing her to be incorruptible, upstanding, and hardworking. As still as she is, you see her at work, earning her life. In fact, she looks impatient to get back to it. Looking in her eyes you are struck so much by her honesty that (up until the thought feels ridiculous) you feel dishonest. This, to me, is photojournalism at its best: when truth wins out over beauty.
— Andrew Lipstein, Head of Editorial