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…. These were things a story writer needed to know.
– One Writer’s Beginnings
Eudora Welty has been widely acclaimed as one of the 20th century’s best writers. She was also, I think, one of our best photographers of the period of the Great Depression. I learned years ago that she had taken pictures, but I only saw them recently on the Internet. They were remarkable but I wasn’t quite sure why.
I’d looked for them because of an interview in a 1995 book called Literature and Photography where the interviewers tried, not always successfully, to get Welty to talk about the influence of her photography on her writing. They did get her to speak at some length about the way the photographs or, as she called them,”the snapshots,” came about.
As she had said before, also in One Writer’s Beginnings. “The camera was a hand-held auxiliary of wanting-to-know.” She was interested in people. She asked them if she might take the picture as it began to take form in front of her and they nearly always said yes. “There was no sense of violation of anything on either side. I don’t think it existed; I know it didn’t in my attitude, or in theirs. All of that unself-consciousness is gone now. There is no such relationship between a photographer and a subject possible any longer.”
The interviewers tried to get her to compare herself to people like Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange since their pictures were of Southern poverty in the same period. She explained more than once in the course of the conversation that she had no agenda. Unlike those and other WPA photographers, she wasn’t making a case against poverty which, in any case, had always been there (in Mississippi). As in her writing, she had “an inquiring nature, and a wish to respond to what I saw, and to what I felt about things, by something I produced or did.”
I’m not well-versed enough in Eudora Welty’s work to speculate about it and her photographs at any length. Even if I were, she’d probably question the exercise. “But as in everything, I want the work to exist as the thing that answers every question about its doing. Not me saying what’s in the work.”
After I’d read the interview and looked at the photographs, I went to my bookshelves and found her Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Optimist’s Daughter. Rereading from it, I was curious to discover that it reminded me of her photographs in some important way. I may be stating the obvious, but I think it’s because she’s profoundly interested in the people she’s writing about. They live and act in front of us the way the people in her photos do and, in both cases, what matters most is who they are and what they’re doing. She doesn’t ask us to take sides, to interpret or judge—just to to look at them with interest and concern.