In a 1971 interview, Walker Evans said that he thought of his work as “documentary style” photography. He argued that art could never be the equivalent of a document because art is not useful. This view seems consistent with Evans’ stated desire to reject propaganda in favor of “pure record” during his stint as a photographer for the Resettlement Administration (RA) between 1935 and 1938. Despite Evans’ reluctance to fully accept the “documentary” label, however, his best-known work, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, is a collaboration between Evans and writer James Agee that chronicles the lives of Alabama tenant farmers. Growing out of an essay commissioned by Fortune magazine, the book met with critical disdain and popular indifference when it was first published in 1941. In 1960, several years after Agee’s novel, A Death in the Family, was published posthumously and won the Pulitzer Prize, Houghton Mifflin reissued Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. It eventually became a “kind of Bible” for young people navigating “the troubled sixties,” according to John Hersey’s introduction to the 1988 edition.
In the book, 61 spare, textural, black and white photographs of three tenant farming families in Hale County, Ala., precede Agee’s 400 pages of impassioned prose. The photographs are unaccompanied by captions or text; Evans “disappears” from the process, critics have claimed, enabling an unmediated encounter between subject and viewer. The fact that Evans used a large format camera–eschewing the “snapshot” sensibility he associated with the 35 mm camera–and allowed his subjects to compose themselves for the camera, provides, for many, evidence of his desire to confront the viewer with the dignity and self-possession of his subjects. But should his photographs be viewed as transparent and useful documents, or as transcendent art? Or can they be both? Are they emblems of an American way of life, or an American photographer’s way of seeing? Are the subjects of the work the Tingles, the Burroughs, and the Fields, or Evans himself?
The StreetSigns Center for Literature and Performance addresses these questions in their dramatization of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. In keeping with their focus on literature and performance, the StreetSigns dramatization favors a verbal exploration of the issues of documentary representation. The performance acts in an almost literal sense as a text brought to life through vocalization, song, and physical gesture; that text is mostly Agee, however. The tension produced by the book’s juxtaposition of Evans’ disciplined visual compositions and Agee’s self-conscious lyricism is absent. The backdrop for the performance is a corrugated metal screen onto which Evans’ photographs and intertitles are projected. The screen’s crenellated surface mediates between audience and subject, interrupting the meticulous clarity of Evans’ work. The images and their meaning are not transparently available to the audience, which usefully complicates the relation between documentary and art.
However, the use of Evans’ images as background undermines the important distinction between image and text. The images are subsumed into the rhythm and flow of Agee’s writing, which sometimes spins a brief narrative of an encounter with tenant farmers, but just as often spins out into a non-narrative description of clothing, a discourse on education, or a Dadaist list of “anglosaxon monosyllables.” Agee’s writing is intentionally intemperate–its exuberance propels the performance with the fascinating glimpse of his febrile mind. Agee questions the ethics and aesthetics of representing others, but, unlike Evans, he writes himself into the text, he becomes the text. Agee’s qualms are voiced in the book’s opening passage. He finds “curious” the project of prying into the lives of an “undefended and appallingly damaged group of human beings … for the purpose of parading their nakedness, disadvantage and humiliation … before another group of human beings, in the name of science, of ‘honest journalism’ (whatever that paradox may mean).”
StreetSigns’ performance captures the ardent quality of what artistic director Derek Goldman calls Agee’s “ethnopoetic text.” The cast members question representation by invoking the words of Hersey, Agee, Evans and some of the people they wrote about and photographed. The fact that representability itself is at stake is made salient by the dialogue. Agee’s first-person “I” is traded among the 13 cast members; sometimes they all speak in unison. Moreover, when the subjects of Agee’s observations speak, they describe their own actions in the third person, while exhibiting the emotion assigned to them by the writer. The cast thus embodies the text rather than purporting to represent “actual events.” This performance style evokes the complexity of communication, of mis-recognizing other human beings. Exploring Agee’s refusal to represent others is an admirable goal, and produces arresting moments during the performance–but ultimately, the exuberance of Agee’s language eclipses these philosophical questions.
The literary nature of the piece causes the performance to move precariously close to “praising” the genius of James Agee. There is a danger here in elevating the author’s persona both through acts of commission and omission. The performance neglects to mention Agee’s privileged class background, although Hersey’s introduction to the book does so in detail. Born in Tennessee, Agee attended Phillips’ Exeter Academy and Harvard, and his job at Fortune during the depths of the Depression arose out of his connections. Class and racial oppressions are so central to the issues the performance explores that to deliberately ignore the details of Agee’s social and aesthetic milieu risks conflating his persona with those of the rural sharecroppers whose virtues he extolled in his guilt-wracked prose. The performance also includes an epigraph from King Lear, but ignores the reciprocal passage from Marx that Agee cryptically footnoted. These seemingly minor details detract from the performance’s ability to distance itself from Agee, to embody Agee’s vision by choosing not to “become someone else.”
The title of this piece derives from the book of Ecclesiasticus/Sirach (44:1-9). The pertinent passage proclaims that the dead who are without memorial, “who perished as though they had never been,” will nevertheless be remembered. By investing so heavily in Agee’s language, StreetSigns’ Let Us Now Praise Famous Men risks memorializing the writer at the expense of the profound investigation of subject and object that engaged both Evans and Agee.