(1909 - 2001)
Eudora Welty, the award-winning crafter of tales that subtly revealed the South through her detailed descriptions and prose, was also a photographer. Her powers of observation and memory, as well as her ability to blend into the environment allowed her to capture scenes of rural Mississippi as a Works Progress Administration publicity assistant.
Although she considered herself a snapshot photographer, Welty’s photos capture the simplicity of everyday life in the South during the Great Depression. Her ability to move within the groups of black and white citizens, each united by their own poverty and unfortunate circumstances, makes her photos seem as intimate as if a family member would have taken them. Even unintentionally each photo has a narrative, and each of those narratives still resonate with contemporary audiences.
Born in Jackson, Mississippi on April 13, 1909, Welty was the oldest and only girl in a family of three siblings. Her mother and father, Chestina and Christian were by accounts loving and supportive, with her mother teaching school locally and her father working as an insurance salesman.(1)
Intellectually gifted, Welty’s talents began to show at a young age. At 12, she won a jingle-writing award, she graduated high school at 16, and shortly thereafter, her writing was published for the first time in The Spectator, the newspaper of the Mississippi State College for Women. Her ambition and support from her parents allowed her to venture from her beloved Mississippi to Wisconsin and New York as she followed her passion for learning. While pursuing her Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of Wisconsin, she also published a poem in their literary magazine.(2)
Her graduation from the University of Wisconsin in 1929 was followed by her application and acceptance into the Columbia University graduate school for business. Her intention to focus on advertising while in New York was cut short by the untimely death of her father in 1931, and it was in that year that she returned home to Jackson to help her mother.(3)
Welty kept herself as busy as her small town and the Depression would allow. While in Jackson, she worked briefly for both the local radio station as well as a Memphis, Tennessee newspaper, where she reported on the Jackson social scene.(4) Shortly afterward, in 1933, she was offered the job as junior publicity agent for the Works Progress Administration. This role allowed her to travel across Mississippi, interviewing people, writing stories, and taking photos to showcase the success of several of the WPA initiatives. It was also during this time that she was able to capture the images that are most celebrated among her oeuvre.(5)
Her continued success in publishing short stories, including Death of a Traveling Salesman (1936), and the 1936 disbanding of the WPA led her to focus more of her time on writing. In the years between 1940 and 1945, she published two collections of short stories and four novels including the short story collections A Curtain of Green (1941) and The Wide Net and Other Stories (1943) as well as The Robber Bridegroom, Delta Wedding, Music from Spain (1948) and The Golden Apples (1949). She also published articles about the war under the pseudonym Michael Ravenna for The New York Times Book Review during 1944 and 1945.(6) The Ponder Heart, the work that cemented her reputation, was published in 1954.(7)
She continued to take photos however, mostly for pleasure, and to document her travels. Photos exist of various trips throughout the United States and Europe, as well as of her friends. The photographs end in 1950, when she lost her beloved Rolleiflex camera in Paris. As a punishment for her carelessness, she did not allow herself to replace it, and instead focused on writing and publishing the novels and collections of short stories for which she became known.(8)
Eudora Welty’s interest in photography stemmed from her father, Christian’s, interest in mechanical things. She grew up having access to a camera(9), and her initial camera of choice was the simple focus Eastman Kodak camera, which was similar to one that her father owned. As her finances allowed, she added other, more technical cameras to her collection, including a more portable Recomar and her Rolleiflex. Eventually, she even created a small, rudimentary darkroom to help her process her negatives and develop prints.(10)
In 1971, Welty’s photographs were published in the book One Time, One Place. This was the first time since her initial 1936 exhibition in New York at the photographic galleries run by Lugene Opticians(11), and the subsequent publication of several of her photos in Life Magazine(12), that her photography was displayed for an audience. In One Time, One Place, Welty divided her photographs into four groups: The Workday, Saturday, Sunday, and Portraits. All of the images reproduced were displayed within one of those categories. The artist contended that these images were meant to convey the spirit and circumstances of a particular moment in history.(13)
This book was followed by the 1989 publication, Eudora Welty: Photographs. The most recent book, Eudora Welty as Photographer was published in 2009, and is a direct result of the new attention being paid to her remarkable images. Since 2004, there have been at least 4 exhibitions of her photographic work that have toured the country, including Eudora Welty in New York: Photographs of the Early 1930s, which was organized by the Museum of the City of New York(14), and Passionate Observer, which debuted at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.(15)
Exhibitions such as Welty, organized in 1977, focused on connecting her writings to the prints and archival material that the artist and author donated in 1957 to the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.(16) It is important to note, however, that Welty had always insisted that photography only aided her recollections and made her more skillful with both observation and descriptive techniques.(17)
(1)“Eudora Welty”, http://www.olemiss.edu/mwp/dir/welty_eudora/index.html (accessed November 30, 2009).
(2) “Eudora Welty”, http://www.olemiss.edu/mwp/dir/welty_eudora/index.html (accessed November 30, 2009).
(3)“1920-29/1930-39”, http://www.eudorawelty.org/bio.html (accessed November 30, 2009)
(4) “Eudora Welty”, http://www.olemiss.edu/mwp/dir/welty_eudora/index.html (accessed November 30, 2009).
(5) Eudora Welty, One Time, One Place: Mississippi in the Depression (Jackson, Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 1971), 3.
(6)“1940-49”, http://www.eudorawelty.org/bio.html (accessed November 30, 2009)
(7)“1950-59”, http://www.eudorawelty.org/bio.html (accessed November 30, 2009)
(8)“Eudora Welty”, http://www.olemiss.edu/mwp/dir/welty_eudora/index.html (accessed November 30, 2009).
(9)“Eudora Welty”, http://www.olemiss.edu/mwp/dir/welty_eudora/index.html (accessed November 30, 2009).
(10)Eudora Welty quoted in “Introduction: Eudora Welty and Photography: An Interview” in Eudora Welty: Photographs (Jackson, Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 1989), xiii.
(11)“1930-39”, http://www.eudorawelty.org/bio.html (accessed November 30, 2009)
(12)“Life Magazine”, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/masterpiece/americancollection/ponder/timeline_text.html (accessed December 17, 2009)
(13)Eudora Welty quoted in “Introduction: Eudora Welty and Photography: An Interview” in Eudora Welty: Photographs (Jackson, Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 1989), xiv.
(14)“Eudora Welty in New York: Photographs of the Early 1930s”, http://www.mcny.org/exhibitions/past/Eudora-Welty.html (accessed December 1, 2009)
(15)“Passionate Observer: Photographs by Eudora Welty, October 27, 2003 - February 29, 2004”, http://www.nmwa.org/exhibition/pastShows.asp (accessed November 20, 2009)
(16) “catalog and conserve her manuscripts and correspondence, and make them available for scholarly research”, http://www.eudorawelty.org/foundationpop3.html, (accessed December 15, 2009)
(17)“I learned quickly to click the shutter, but what I was becoming aware of more slowly was a story-writer’s truth: the thing to wait on, to reach there in time for, is the moment in which people reveal themselves.” Eudora Welty, One Time, One Place: Mississippi in the Depression (Jackson, Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 1996), 7.
S. Masterson 11/16/09