In Fall 2013, students in History of Twentieth Century Art wrote about works from the OSU Museum of Art permanent collection for their final research projects. In this blog post, I excerpt a paper by Casey Pankey, who went on to present her research during the opening exhibition of the Museum, “Sharing a Journey,” and who is now on the Museum staff as Education and Programming Coordinator. Casey wrote about American photographer Walker Evans’ Depression-era collaboration with James Agee, focusing on Untitled (Fireplace and wall detail), 1935-36.
In the hot summer of 1936, Walker Evans and James Agee were given an assignment to tour the southern part of the United States and document the lifestyle of migrant workers and farmers. The goal was to educate the nation on the toll farmers felt from the Dust Bowl. In Alabama, Agee and Evans met three families that stood out to them and fit the description they were directed to seek: white, poor, farmer.
The three families they found were not highly thought of in the town. Agee recounts slandering against them from townspeople, “None of these people has any sense, nor any initiative. If they did, they wouldn’t be farming on shares” (Agee, 80). They called them everything from ignorant, to whores, to bad cooks. Despite the warnings, Agee and Evans stayed with the families and documented their daily lives, fully intending to publish their accounts with FORTUNE magazine. To protect the families’ privacy, Agee and Evans used pseudonyms for every member. At the end of their eight-week project, FORTUNE refused to print their work.
One such photo, Fireplace and wall detail, is a photograph that depicts a single fireplace in the Gudger (aka the Burroughs) family home and the trinkets that belong to a family absent from the photo. Through meticulous compositional cropping, Evans discusses the roles of family members in poverty while examining the reason they are there—and the reasons they remain.
A wall of horizontal wooden slats supports the simple brick fireplace with a wooden frame. The fireplace is placed just off-center, to the left, of the picture plane. A sheet of paper, folded and cut into a series of patterned triangular shapes, hangs over the edge of the mantle. Annie Mae Grudger, the matriarch, claims this was her “last effort to make this house pretty” (Agee, 163). Each end of the mantel is decorated with a vessel; both have a large base, narrow neck and a pair of handles. Between them is a delicate china plate, centered on the mantle. This plate was a gift from Louise’s mother, and Louise, being the eldest of the Gudger children and the only girl, proudly calls it her own. (Agee, 163) This plate is her most cherished possession.
A few inches in front of the fireplace, centered, is a small wooden table. The table is topped with a simple white cloth, two vessels, and a package wrapped in crumpled paper. One vessel is tall and thin and topped with large, jagged triangular shapes, while the other is short, bulbous and topped with a delicately interlacing pattern. A beautiful china swan sits in the short vase. Beneath the table is a pair of men’s Sunday best Oxford shoes. The heels of the shoes are dirty with a fine layer of dusty mud, as opposed to caked thick mud. This is a kind of permanent dirt, not the kind that comes from a sudden rain. These belong to George Gudger, the father of the family, a sharecropper. One day, the three sons of the family, George Jr., Burt, and Squinchy, will place their shoes here to dry, when they join their father in the fields.
On the wall above the fireplace, almost center, above Louise’s plate, there is a calendar advertising Findlay’s House of Peter’s shoes, with a drawing of a lavishly dressed woman. Agee noted that Louise had written her name in pencil twice on the picture. Perhaps in play, Louise imagines herself to be beautiful and decorated like this woman. The calendar teases Louise with this sensual hope, while a small photograph hanging next to the calendar reminds us that the women of the family have been trapped in poverty for at least three generations now.
The photo is of Annie Mae’s sister and mother. It is housed in an eight-pointed star shaped frame made of dyed straw. The photograph is fading, but the figures are still recognizable, standing together in white Sunday dresses, most likely the same style that Louise and her mother wear. To the right of the calendar, in oval shaped frames, two hardly recognizable images of Jesus and the Virgin Mary counter the weight of the depressing past.
To the right of the fireplace, and almost out of the picture plane, two pages that have been taken from a child’s storybook have been pasted to the wall. The first is a spread of a woman embracing a small lavishly dressed boy and the other a woman with four geese. Agee cites the accompanied text, “The Harper was Happier than a King as He Sat by his Own Fireside. She Took the Little Prince in Her Arms and Kissed Him. (‘She’ is a goosegirl.)” Louise, or her brothers, probably had a hand in selecting these pages and they might even have come from one of their own books. As they are used for decoration, it is most likely that Louise selected these, in an effort to carry on her mother’s attempt at decorating. In the final published image of the photograph, it is cropped so that the calendar is no longer visible and the storybook pages barely enter the frame.
The wall shows evidence of more art or papers that had once been on the wall. There are lighter patches of wood that had once been protected from sunlight and fireplace smoke. At one time there was more hanging on this wall but for whatever reasons the images were removed; remnants of one removed image remain stuck to the wall. Finally, a stark white child’s handprint has been slapped on the wall, just to the right of the fireplace, slightly beneath the mantel. It serves as a reminder that humans live in this space. Although no one is physically in the image, family members materialize through the objects.
Were Louise, Burt, Squinchy, and George Jr. all doomed to suffer? David Whitford of FORTUNE magazine returned to Alabama to interview the remaining members of the family in 2005. He found that the families were angry that they had been shown as downtrodden, dirty, people living in such inhumane conditions. Phil, son of Floyd Burroughs Jr. (aka George Gudger Jr.), said he remembered his father being angry about the book. “They were cast in a light that they couldn’t do any better, that they were doomed, ignorant… But they weren’t ignorant, and they definitely weren’t lazy” (Whitford).
Agee, James, and Walker Evans. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1960.
Evans, Walker. “Oral History Interview with Walker Evans, 1971 Oct. 13-Dec. 23.” Interview by Paul Cummings. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Whitford, David. “The Most Famous Story We Never Told.” FORTUNE Magazine September 19, 2005.