Eudora Welty photographed pain and perseverance

October 31, 2003|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - Literary scholars often pore over early works of important writers, intent on finding the themes, preoccupations and imagery that would later become so familiar.

The renowned Southern Gothic writer Eudora Welty gave scholars something more to chew on.

Before publication of Welty's first collection of short stories, she considered a career in photography. As a young woman in the Depression, Welty traveled her home state of Mississippi (with forays to New Orleans and New York City), taking what she called "snapshots." The results are an arresting collection of black-and-white images that, on one hand, capture people living under conditions of terrible deprivation, while also suggesting resilience, humor and dignity.

This week, the National Museum of Women in the Arts has put more than 50 of those photographs on display. The exhibit, Passionate Observer, is scheduled to run through the end of February.

Taken as a whole, Welty's photographs - many depicting images of enervating poverty and unrelenting hardship - belong alongside those of legendary photographers such as Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange, who chronicled America during one of its most trying times.

But Welty's photographs contain a significance beyond documentation. They also help illuminate and presage the writer that she would become.

"A lot of these images appear in Welty's fiction," says Suzanne Marrs, a Welty scholar at Millsaps College in the author's hometown of Jackson, Miss., and a close friend and biographer of the writer, who died in 2001.

"She always said fiction and photography were parallel images. She stored them in her mind and used them in fiction when she felt the time was right, sometimes 20 years later."

Welty inherited her interest in photography from her father, an insurance executive and amateur photographer. As a kid, she and her friends cut up in front of the camera, but soon Welty's interest became more aesthetic. Traveling on behalf of the Works Progress Administration and the Mississippi Advertising Commission, she shot pictures of the people and scenes she encountered. As she did, she became more expert in technique and composition and more deliberate in her makeshift darkroom at home.

The photographs on display are intimate and discerning. Even if a present-day audience is separated by time and distance, onlookers cannot fail to see the humanity, to discover an expression, an emotion that is poignantly recognizable.

"My wish, indeed my continuing passion," Welty wrote, "would be not to point the finger in judgment but to part a curtain, that invisible shadow that falls between people, the veil of indifference to each other's presence, each other's wonder, each other's human plight."

The photographs usually focus on one or two people caught in a transient moment. In Chopping the Fields, a spindly girl, her clothing so worn it is practically translucent, pauses during her labor in a field. In her hands is a thin stick. Both the girl and the implement seem overmatched by the task at hand.

In another photograph, a washerwoman in an apron and kerchief in hair sits on a porch during a break in her day. A dog is asleep behind her; a cat washes itself. The woman's head is bowed in a weariness that seems eternal.

In Window Shopping, a slim, young woman in white print dress and bonnet stands before a picture window in Grenada, Miss., eyeing an unseen display. One hand is on her hip, the other her chin as she ponders the weight of desire.

"Eudora was able to capture people as individuals in her photographs, and those pictures, to me, tell a story," says Mary Alice Welty White, Welty's niece and director of the Eudora Welty House in Jackson.

For her time, place and race, Welty shows an unusual admiration and affection for African-Americans. In Baptist Deacon an elderly black preacher stands before a ramshackle grocery store in white suit and tie and hat. His shoes are worn, his eyes obscured by shadow and black-framed glasses. His face is dominated by a bushy white mustache. Although he is frail, his proud demeanor suggests resolve and wisdom.

In A Woman of the Thirties, an old black woman stands outside a shack looking impassively toward the camera. Her frock jacket is frayed and moth-eaten. Her expression is resigned, but there is something unbreakable in her, too. She has no grand expectations of what this day will bring, but will endure whatever it is.

The photographs are far from despairing. Even though clearly hard-pressed by circumstances, Welty's subjects - black and white - show a capacity to find pleasures that are real and meaningful. A poor woman in a chair in a field gazes lovingly at the child on her lap. Tomato packers joyfully lean toward a guitar player entertaining them during a break. Three women in dresses, their arms clasped around each other's waists, contemplate the double Ferris wheel spinning before them.

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