In Photos, Eudora Welty Captured Life in 1930s Mississippi

By Matthew Sedacca for the New York Times

Photographs by Eudora Welty

Before her career as a distinguished fiction writer, Eudora Welty applied her short-form prowess to photographing life in Depression-era Mississippi. 

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Bursting from the fertile ground of Crystal Springs, Miss., an absurdly odd harvest blots out the horizon: a cottage-size tomato, drooping decorative leaf and all, perched atop a wooden shanty. Lured by the irresistible gravitational pull of this shrine to “The Tomatropolis,” a smiling woman poses for a photographer and offers scale, her fingers pointing childlike at the kitsch behind her.

Sure, the folks back home had to see this surreal homage to the city’s economic foundation. But even more unexpected is the photographer: Eudora Welty, the elder stateswoman of American letters.

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Before becoming famous for her short stories of comedic interfamilial strife and everyday adversities subtly imbued with issues of race and class, Ms. Welty used the camera as her vehicle to preserve life, ever-fleeting with all its joys, complexities and hardships, in the 1930s. Many of these photos were featured in “Photographs,” originally published in 1989, and recently reissued by the University Press of Mississippi.

A native of Jackson, Miss., Ms. Welty briefly left the South to attend the University of Wisconsin at Madison and, later, business school at Columbia University. She returned in 1931 to work at Jackson’s local radio station and contribute society columns to The Commercial Appeal in Memphis.

But it was in her stint as a junior publicity agent for the Works Progress Administration, which itself was famed for dispatching some of the country’s best photographers and writers to chronicle New Deal America, that she flourished as a photographer. Ms. Welty captured her fellow Mississippians in their daily routines, with each frame evoking the complications of everyday life, like children hauling unwieldy blocks of ice to dinner or a fatigued-looking nurse outside a clinic.

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“Poverty in Mississippi, white and black, really didn’t have too much to do with the Depression,” Ms. Welty said in an interview with Hunter Cole and Seetha Srinivasan at the beginning of the book. “It was ongoing. Mississippi was long since poor, long devastated. I took the pictures of our poverty because that was reality.”

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Prints from this period were featured in her two-week solo show at the photographic galleries of Lugene Opticians in New York in 1936, but the literary world proved more receptive to her work, with Manuscript magazine publishing her first piece of fiction that same year. Her photos were finally published for the first time in her 1971 opus “One Time, One Place: Mississippi in the Depression.”

Given her affiliation with the W.P.A., viewers might be tempted to draw comparisons between her images and those of renowned photographers of the time, like Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange, who worked for the Farm Security Administration. The differences between their bodies of work are clear, something she herself confirmed: Instead of the formalism or portrait work of Mr. Evans and Ms. Lange, Ms. Welty’s images show life as it unfolded before her, distilling the solemn quiet of a blind weaver at work or the warm communal embrace of women at a carnival.

“I was taking photographs of human beings because they were real life and they were there in front of me and that was the reality,” Ms. Welty said. “I was the recorder of it. I wasn’t trying to exhort the public.”

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Ms. Welty’s photography doesn’t extend past the mid-1950s, a fact she attributed to a combination of losing her camera in Paris and devoting the bulk of her creative energy to writing. Still, the decades spent documenting the world around her played a part in shaping her point of view in writing that people would eventually revere.

“Some perception of the world and some habit of observation shaded into the other,” Ms. Welty said about her dual passions, “just because in both cases, writing and photography, you were trying to portray what you saw, and truthfully. Portray life, living people, as you saw them. And a camera could catch that fleeting moment, which is what a short story, in all its depth, tries to do.”



ART HUNT: OLE MISS, SACRED GROUND

OLE MISS, SACRED GROUND

There are decisions and circumstances in our lives that are true turning points, the yes and no so delicate that they lead us into a river flowing so aggressively in on direction that we can’t turn back.  Two key decisions for me:  not to marry a college sweetheart and not to pursue running my father’s furniture company, Jacob, Inc.  To chart my own course, I had to make these choices about marriage, family , and career early.  To think differently and do differently than many of my contemporaries was direct and conscious yet uncertain.  These decisions were my tickets out yet would also raise many question marks and create some regrets over the years.  I left the tribe and did not realize the impossibility of ever really returning.   The circumstance?  My father died.  

Looking back over my shoulder, so much of the procurement in my life occurred in the compacted time of my senior year at Ole Miss and it has taken me years of couch sitting in my SueBella’s therapy office to process so much of it.  That time is undoubtedly when my life shifted and my career as an art dealer began.  

I was born and raised (with no margin for anything different) to attend one of the pilot schools—University of Mississippi or Mississippi State—and default into a top Greek house with large columns and grand doors.  Marrying well was not discouraged.  Rush started mid-high school and so much focus was on the right Greek house with rules like no drinking, sex, and dating the “wrong boy.”  On weekends, we attended Ole Miss football games and rush parties at selected sorority houses on Sunday mornings, nibbling cheese straws and sipping lime punch from silver monogrammed cups.  

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Tri Delta House, Chi Chapter, University of Mississippi, Oxford 

Tri Delta House, Chi Chapter, University of Mississippi, Oxford 

Upon initiation, we were expected to wear white dresses and DDD pins (often accessorized by a sorority sister or dear friend of its sisterhood) and required to take courses on “manners and Southern behavior.”  We learned how to set a formal dinner table, sit appropriately with ankles crossed and straight stiff backs, proper language when receiving a phone call.  We also were handed a rule book noting that Tri Deltas were required to achieve a certain CPA and smoke sitting down, were prohibited from table or stage dancing (rules broken by most), and could not bring boys beyond the foyer or parlor (again, rules broken by most).  If a boy and girl were to stay overnight together, may the two be married or forever hide her DDD letters.  

Most rules seemed non-applicable on football weekends, as our housemother Ms. Julia took time away from the house to garden (and she didn’t want to be woken all hours by drunken stoppers and Hotty Toddy cheers).  The Tri Delta house was a short stroll to the Grove, a tradition if not sacred ground for tail gating and Ole Miss talk and debauchery.  Red solo cups were discorporate of liquor and mixers, no ice necessary and grabbing a needed chicken wing from a stranger’s table is acceptable.    

Ole Miss Grove, photographer unknown 

Ole Miss Grove, photographer unknown 

Coach Billy Brewer with is Ole Miss Rebels 

Coach Billy Brewer with is Ole Miss Rebels 

Ole Miss Grove, contemporary, photographer unknown 

Ole Miss Grove, contemporary, photographer unknown 

I don’t know exactly how I flourished creatively in such a predictable and sometimes limiting environment.  It was at times a seemingly rigid structure and a conventional circle of friends.  Although I thrived and enjoyed much of my life as a Tri-Delta, I found most of my joys in my schoolwork—newly discovered art history classes, creative writing classes, English literature classes, and periodic painting class by the notable Mississippi painter Wyatt Waters on weekends.  These were not only a source of sanity, but also a corridor to new worlds awaiting exploration.  

This particular spring day, the Tri-Delta house held anxious sorority sisters as we prepared for the fall formal, typically celebrated on a steamboat on the Mississippi River.  We would go by bus to Memphis and board there off the ramp downtown, viewing the bridge as we boarded.  (In time, Tri Delta was banned from parties on the steamboat thanks to a sister having sex on the rooftop.) 

The March day was intensely beautiful so most of us had our windows open.  The breezy air, filled with the scent of honeysuckle and nearly bloomed blowers indigenous to Mississippi soil, whirled through the house, carrying the conversations more fluidly and expansively than usual.  In most rooms I passed, sisters were walking around in their sequined or chiffon dresses, barefoot and unmade up—a dress rehearsal of sorts.  A neurotic, academically charged student programmed by Daddy to attend law school after graduation, I had just dredged through one of my most intense test weeks.  Having come out with all A’s, I was tired but glistening at my accomplishment.  I couldn’t wait to share my success with my parents, gleaming on the other end of the telephone.  

That phone call was a game changer, the shift.  News from my camp was positive; new from home was devastating.  Daddy was sick with cancer.  Through the reassurances that he would be okay, I knew it would be a brutal and perhaps long fight.  Not only was the emotional toll a heavy, and, at times, unbearable weight, but my set of responsibilities shifted dramatically.  Overnight, I morphed from a college student focused on studies, sorority, LSAT preparation, and fashion picks for parties into my father’s rock and operation of business matters, family duties, death preparations, and medical bills.  I’m often refereed to as an “old soul,” but the truth of the mater is that my twenties bought clarity of real life and real matters.  It was the first time I realized the power of that cliche phrase “life or death.” 

Yet through this time, I learned the art of unwavering focus and deception.  Having read and article about Bill Clinton teaching himself to sleep only four to five hours a night, I began to trick my body into operating under the same deprivation.  I learned to compact studying into the block of time between hospital visits and class.  I also learned that tragedy projects uncertainty, heavy sadness, and fatigue so intense that you sleep in your clothes.  I said no to a lot of experiences at Ole Miss, like parties and hangouts. I spent most of my time in libraries, hospitals, and my father’s store—a tripartite mix the was means to survival and keeping my family together. I still managed to make straight A’s—that small success would become a cornerstone of my life’s accomplishments.  No matter the circumstances, my work and my mind are steadfast.  I can always achieve and control there.  

Lyceum at Ole Miss during the Civil War Era.  During this time, the building served as the University of Mississippi School of Law.  

Lyceum at Ole Miss during the Civil War Era.  During this time, the building served as the University of Mississippi School of Law.  

Lyceum at Ole Miss during the John F. Kennedy Era (1962).  On loan from the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.  

Lyceum at Ole Miss during the John F. Kennedy Era (1962).  On loan from the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.  

Certainly, there have been moments, particularly in the low times, when I questioned passing by men during that era of coming into my own.  I have envied those with the big house in the suburbs, platoon of children, fancy cars with wood-grain dashboards, layered diamond rings (passed down generations), and country club memberships.  But then it all seems so homogenized, and I think, had I chosen that, the only sanity—and one that would have eventually killed me—would have been large doses of bourbon. 

In the next few months, doctors ran out of options, and we settled into the fat art Daddy wold die.  That’s a hard bullet to bite for little girls who love their daddy, who grow up believing their daddy is invincible.  My father and I spent a cold, rainy afternoon in early January, constructing his funeral, song by song, including scripture, guest list, and his suit and tie choice.  He would have two services:   the funeral at the Baptist church and the x in the Catholic Church.  A rarity in the Southern Baptist services, an operatic Ave Maria was sung, and it’s the only thing I remember about the funeral.  Ina. Clear indication of the level of respect the community had for my father, the local floral shops were so depleted that many gardeners allow their friends to choose for their foliage.  Additional plants were shipped in from nearby Oxford, Mississippi and Memphis, Tennessee.    

I buried my father on a Sunday; I was back in class on Monday, per my mother’s demand and my expectation of self.  I walked from the Tri Delta House with my best friend Sarah to our creative writing class taught by the great writer, Larry Brown.

Larry Brown was a powerful voice in my final year year at Ole Miss, teaching me in creative writing class and Son, Joe, and Big Bad Love, a long with countless short stories.  Had I not know Larry, my life would have been much different, and I don’t know if I would have had the courage to embrace my love affair with my career, my story, this book.  During this trying and dark time, Larry’s class was an escape of sorts through reading assignments, writing short stories, and being among so many creatives who always saw the world in shades of grey.  But I was also learning the tools to construct and devise a long piece of writing, a skill set that would help me cope with my reality, then and later on.  

Larry’s class was a critical experience that had lasting and monumental impact.  He always believed—and practiced in his own mastery of the craft—that you should write what you know, put trouble on the front page, and write (long I) like you talk.  Every day of class, he walked in a leather jacket, white T-shirt, and worn boots still dirty from the red soil…. —typical attire for a writer but not necessarily an academic.  (His office on campus was a phone wrapped in its cord.  “So nobody will bother me,” he smirked.”  

He smelled of sweet, fading bourgeon and cigarettes (class started around 4:00 p.m.), went to the board, and book a piece of chalk to his liking, and wrote “S-T-O-R-Y.”  Then he turned to the class and said, “If yo udon’t have the guts to show your guts, get out.”  In the first few writing assignments, not noted my inability to do this.  

Larry, with a mere high school degree, wasn’t fond of an academic setting, so most of our classes were held at the City Grocery bar on the Oxford Square.  Larry spent a lot of time at bars, as that’s where he “to most of his material.”  “People act more natural to themselves in a bar,” he suggested.  There, my classmates and I (many who have tone on to become acclaimed writers) talked about books, shared our stories, and, in many ways, learned to understand that our lives are, in their truest essence, stories. I set out to create and live mine.  

MARTIN J. DAIN:  OXFORD, MISSISSIPPI (1961)

By, Rebekah Jacob:  Owner & Founder of the Rebekah Jacob Gallery & Vedado Gallery

#ArtHunt #TravelDiaries #Wanderlust #ArtOfTheDeal

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ART HUNT: THE FLATLANDS

THE FLATLANDS OF MISSISSIPPI

My childhood was rich. I was raised in a secure family, dwelling in the nostalgically beautiful southern town of Clarksdale, Mississippi, which sits on the Sunflower River, a small tributary of the Mississippi River, the widest river in the world and arguable the most aggressive.  This majestic entity—and its parallel levee—has appropriately been the setting for masterpieces by the literary Greats:  Mark Twain, Tennessee Williams, Walker Percy, among others.    

My neighborhood, one of the oldest in the Delta, is picturesque, with wide streets, large oaks and antebellum homes and boasting expansive porches.  Throughout time, Clark Street has attracted acclaimed politicians, artists, poets, lawyers, and eccentrics.  Sundays were quiet as most magneted to the local country club for swimming, tennis or golf.  Always, whiskey.  

Historic images of Clarksdale, Mississippi c. 1920.  Photographer unknown.  

Historic images of Clarksdale, Mississippi c. 1920.  Photographer unknown.  

My childhood in the Mississippi Delta taught me almost everything I needed to know about creativity.  The Delta’s open skies were a canvas for dreams, the local librarian held reading circles presenting books on faraway places as well as Mississippi’s indigenous and seemingly exotic Seminole Indians,  the school nuns at St. Elizabeth encouraged the written word and pretty penmanship, and all the Mississippi storytellers always, by default, could find an audience.  

My mother could have written a manual on introducing one’s children to art and books.  She was often juggling a full-time job and motherhood, always hauling me off to dance lessons, piano lessons, or art lessons, even if that meant late at night or early in the morning before school bells rang.  My heart would flutter like a jackrabbit at the anticipation of engaging in that world of creativity, strategically packing my red backpack the night before with selected sheet music, pens, books, or paints.  For me, the extra circular activities were a barometer of well-achieved academics, as straight A’s were required in order to engage in the after-school activities.  Also, sometimes I got the feeling that my mother’s love and pride for me depended on how much I excelled at these art forms.  

My mother, a great reader of books, would orate to me every night until, by the young age of four, I could read on my own.  I, in my childish way, applauded her wizardry with the English language and her empathetic renderings of words to make the stories come alive.  Sometimes, she would pause and challenge me on a spelling word, still a challenge as I see many letters backwards and upside down.  My older sister Rachael, who could not keep her eyes open past sundown, quietly nested beside us, a closed-up bottle of fireflies often by our antique, quilted bed.

Rachael’s hair is “so dark that it’s blue,” as my mother would describe; her eyes the color of a Caribbean sea.  She has never been as intuitively interested in art or academics and has always been most concerned with maternal achievements, exactly like my mother. 

My mother would sign me up for me various art classes to not only explore creativity but to “eliminate my shyness.”   A quiet, loner of sorts, strange and people filled rooms were—and still are—challenging.  Feisty and gregarious, Rachael would care for me and guide me as her baby sister, walking me through long corridors and into these rooms, remaining present until I nodded “okay to leave.”  

My mother also loved the art of candid photography, and a camera was ever present in our homes and lives.  She was known to have two or three cameras strapped around her neck at dance recitals, graduations or casual family outings.  Her archive is a detailed series of images of the Jacob home and our progress as a family.  Her style direct and documentary, her camera varied from RCA video cameras to polaroid cameras.  They are still in my archive.  

My mother had a smile that could knock out a room and that’s what I remember most about her.  Raised in small town Alabama, she had a southern drawl of long i’s and spoke in contractions as much as possible.  Mama’s hair was dark black with a small patch of grey on the right side, a defiant Baptist, she always believed “that’s where an angel kissed her.”  She was a corridor to kindness and the template of a virtuous woman, the practice of which she lived; the verses in Proverbs 31:10-31, highlighted and underlined in her Bible.  She was the temple of Goodness and her gift was giving.  Her eyes were crystal blue like a clear sky and danced in the rhythm to her deep-hearted laugh, which was constant.     

However, kindness and graciousness did not completely trump her rigidness, formidability, and sternness.  She would “crack the whip,” as my sister Rachael recalls, if we challenged house and family rules.  Mama obsessed with cleanliness and order, could scrub the house down herself, top to bottom (even dusting the top of the ceiling fan blades), and then call the maid, Ms. Virginia to “redo.”  The only “messy part” of my room could be my art table filled with an array books which were juxtaposed to stacks of crayons, markers, paints, fabric and string.  My secret world?  A collection of scurried books underneath my bed, hidden by the white lace bedskirt and protected from my mother’s view as she had crickety knees.  At night,  I would read with a flashlight past designated bedtime, defaulting into stories like Black Beauty often juxtaposed with pictures.  I once checked out a book by Judy Bloom but then became hysterical that women were dying from bleeding vaginas.  That’s when my sister, three years older, explained the menstrual cycle and described a tampon.   

My art table was one of the first pieces of furniture I bought and I made the deal with the antique seller with my babysitting money.  One Saturday afternoon, my mother took me to the estate sale of a wealthy Delta family, the Peacocks.  I selected an antique Duncan Fyfe table and a small mahogany side chair with carved roses on its rail and a needlepoint cushion with mirrored design.  Preaching and insisting the furniture was nice and expensive, my mother had two sheets of glass cut to protect the table’s surface.  A quiet, contemplative child who never was keen on a lot of friends or busy activity.  I spent endless hours creating words at that art station by painting and writing.  All the while, a red-headed woodpecker nesting outside my window and sometimes flying inside to rest on my encyclopedia stack.  Every time I go home, he seems to greet me.  “Woodpeckers have special spirits,” my father once claimed, “and legend has it that they live to be 100, often nesting in the same tree until death.”  

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My mother could be utterly demanding, rigid, and complicated—her way or the highway.  Despite ice storms, sick days, travel, et cetera, we never missed Sunday church, and I had perfect attendance at school during most of my formative years.  I was always expected to be five to seven minutes early, by her watch, which was already prompted ten minutes ahead.  Honor roll was expected, and the letters on my report card never noted anything other than A.  When angered, she could slam a phone so loud it would reverberate to Kansas.  We lived on Clark Street, about two blocks from our Catholic school, St. Elizabeth, where I was trained on the piano two-three times a week by Mrs. Tavoletti.  One cold morning, moving at a sluggish speed, I had forgotten my piano books.  Mama was so mad, she drove me home all the way down Clark Street in a rant — backwards.  

I mastered the piano, dance, and writing, erring the weight that she was difficult to please and experiencing the disappointment when I failed to please her.  Mama was a perfectionist about our appearance.  As most children rolled their hair in sponge rollers for Sunday church, my sister and I had ours “done up” every single night.  Our clothes (sock and underwear, too) were always ironed, and we rarely wore the same dress twice to fancy functions where we were to be photographed.  Those expectations have manifested and perpetuated in my adult life, thus defining me to some degree as a artist of sorts, workaholic, over-achiever, and might I add, a fashionista of well-ironed attire.  

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While my mother kept the house moving to her delight and high standards, my father mostly worked, departing before daybreak and arriving after sunset.  My father, owner of a furniture company, located only a few blocks from my house in the business district.  It was a world of sofas, couches as well a cash registers and large bound hand-written ledgers.  

Daddy is still the hardest worked I have ever known.  His work ethic was instilled in me early, and I still compare my progress to his unsurmountable success early in life.  I don’t remember a day that he didn’t reflect and engage in his company, constantly “feeding the organism,” as he would say. 

My father was sort of a miracle.  He was tall, dark, and handsome and alway walked with a confident swagger.  One of seven children of French descent, he was the only one to inherit green eyes, which shifted in colors to grey or blue, depending on the light.  His eyes, set deep and expressive, said everything about his current state—stress, joy, concern, contemplation, and more.  I am often reminded of his eyes—and their honest translation of thought and emotions—as I wear them myself.  “Genetics are a funny thing,” my mother would suggest.  At work, he was conscious of his appearance (yes, slightly vain), so my mother always saw to it that his khakis and long sleeve shirts were pressed with “triple extra starch.”  Sometimes it would seem as though his garments were standing up on their own. I “inherited” the same trait.  If I am not dressed to the nines at work, I am clearly having a nervous breakdown.

Though full of love and admiration for us, my mother could be emotional, irrational, high-strung, rigid, and complicated—the antithesis of my father.  He was wonderfully tender when it came to his two daughters.  He was gentle and kind, with a diplomatic and graceful approach to life and work.  I never remember hearing him raise his voice and he tucked us in every night.  He left us encouraging notes in our lunch sacks and later, when we were in college, mailed cards and notes to say hello and to remind us that he believed in us.  He always signed off, “Dear Ole Day.”  

I shared equal love for my parents, but I was a carbon copy of my father’s personality, political interests, brain power, intellectualism, and entrepreneurial pursuits.  My mother encouraged the arts, and my father, business and financial independence.  I have perhaps magically become a hybrid of them both.

 

BILL STEBER & ADAM SMITH:  MISSISSIPPI DELTA 

By, Rebekah Jacob:  Owner & Founder of the Rebekah Jacob Gallery & Vedado Gallery

#ArtHunt #TravelDiaries #Wanderlust #ArtOfTheDeal

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