I’ve a book in my library called simply Mississippi: A Guide to the Magnolia State. It was originally put out in 1939 by the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration, which if old enough we remember as the WPA. It is lavishly supplied with illustrations, among them three by Eudora Welty, though that name then was probably less well known than those of other contributors, such as J.M. Pruitt, Gene Holcomb, Mary Ethel Dismukes and countless others, strangers to us today, while the Welty name is known worldwide.
That Eudora came back from a time in New York during the Depression and got a job doing publicity work for the WPA office is common knowledge, but while traveling throughout the state to do interviews and write up projects, she was not assigned to take photographs of people and places she discovered. This was her own idea. What she captured was a record of this discovery, for she seems to have known very little about the daily life of farms and small towns in the state. A Jackson girl, daughter of an insurance company president, her life was sheltered, not purposely, but by circumstances of being born and raised in Mississippi’s largest city–hardly more then than a big town–and its capital. She just didn’t know until her travels what was really going on.
Astonishingly, her photos show what was unmistakably a labor of love. Discovery and love: Here was her own nature speaking. She said herself that she never intended to point a finger at poverty and want. Other, highly trained photographers were ranging through the poor old South, doing just that, implying guilt. It was never her way, even then.
There are at least three books of her photographs. The first is One Time, One Place: Mississippi in the Depression, a selection brought out in 1971 by Random House. The second and more inclusive is Eudora Welty: Photographs, brought out in 1989 by the University Press of Mississippi. The third, Country Churchyards, appeared in 2000, also from the University Press of Mississippi.
I chanced to see on television at least two interviews with Eudora in which she spoke of her photographs. One photo that particularly filled her with delight sticks in my memory. “Sideshow, State Fair/Jackson/1939.” Three boys, looking. There are a good many reasons for its being a special experience for me. She spoke of some of them herself. She spoke of the difference in the way of looking, reflected in the young faces. They are obviously all three country boys, perhaps kin, perhaps not. Together for a big occasion–the State Fair, held every year at the Jackson Fairgrounds.
The strange thing is, you can’t tell what they’re looking at. The important thing to her obviously was how they were looking at it. Seeing is all. In his beautiful preface to The Nigger of Narcissus, Joseph Conrad makes the point. His aim: “To make you see.” This seems small but he calls it “everything.” And now, more all the time, the bridge between Welty photographs and her fiction begins to come clear in the sometimes slow developer of my mind.
I remember her speaking of the boys, and how she pointed to each. A different attitude appears in each face. They are all impressed with something, and they are all reacting differently to it. On the left, there is a boy happily uncritical, enjoying. The middle one I see as skeptical, somewhat scornful. The third and youngest is marveling, maybe a little puzzled.
What are they looking at? It matters that a “side show” is on, but do we have to know? We don’t but are curious. In the larger book of photographs we find some pictures of what they might be seeing, “Side Show” signs included. Could it be “SEX, MALE AND FEMALE, LIFE IN THE NUDE”? I don’t think so for there is not that kind of curiosity in their faces. Could it be “JUNIE: ALIVE, ALIVE. THE COW WITH THE HUMAN FACE”? Or “TWISTO THE RUBBER MAN,” or “HEADLESS GIRL–$1,000 IF NOT ALIVE,” or “ALIVE! NO EXTRA CHARGE! MULE FACE WOMAN”? Or maybe it’s The Hypnotist, proclaiming like an evangelist in the crowd.
But we don’t know what it is, and that to me is a fuller meaning than if we did.
Groups of three often intrigue the artist. We think of the innumerable pictures of the three wise men at the birthplace of Jesus. Tradition and perhaps painters have thought of them as three, though no number was given. Groupings abound in other religious paintings or family portraits. Here, likewise, there is a photograph of three black women walking through Grenada, Miss., on a Saturday in town, only their expressive backs to the camera; also three young black men seated before a store front in Canton, again showing a range of attitudes and moment.
Eudora mentions the moment of insight too often for it not to have been central in her thoughts when taking pictures, just as it later became central to her stories. The “moment of truth” was something Ernest Hemingway expounded on, though I believe what he thought of it was different. Eudora’s moment of truth came when she, waiting patiently, as invisibly as possible, caught the inner essence of the person. This moment occurs over and over in her camera-portraits of single faces, but the revelation of three occurring in one single instant is mightily intriguing, and I see why she commented at such length on the three country boys at the state fair.
But how do we get to her astonishing fiction, which she said her picture-taking led her to? Photography is seeing and feeling. It even seems to speak to us of something, certainly it communicates. But it has no ear. Eudora simply added another dimension to her seeing when she began to write. She says that photographing scenes and people demanded the same sort of insight, the same search for “the moment” as photography. And so we find her ear linking naturally to what is already present in the pictures and sound, too, springing to life as a voice with a story to tell.
It is the voice which, once let loose, creates a grand enlargement of what is already there. A photograph doesn’t give much in the way of humor; but the Welty voice, once in play, is full of such funny observation that it is impossible not to laugh out loud. And her style shows what the observed is like–thus similes abound. A cat jumps off a porch “like something poured from a bottle.” Shoes left by the roadside resemble pairs of watermelon rinds. An old horse flaunts its tail “like a decoration he had only just put on.”
No, pictures cannot give us these welcome extensions of voice and image. But the central gift in both remains one of seeing.
Elizabeth Spencer is the author of over a dozen collections of short stories and novels, including 2001’s The Southern Woman, from the Modern Library. She has received five O. Henry awards. Eudora Welty wrote the introduction to Spencer’s 1981 collection, The Stories of Elizabeth Spencer. Spencer returned the favor by penning the introduction to Welty’s last title, Country Churchyards, published in 2000. Spencer lives in Chapel Hill.