Let us start with two images. The first is Walker Evans’s photograph of a sparsely adorned grave, included in the section of photographs that accompanies James Agee’s text in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941). In the context of Evans and Agee’s narrative of their time spent among white tenant farmers in Hale County, Alabama, during the summer of 1936, this image underscores the text’s minute, often voyeuristic descriptions of Depression-era southern poverty and the liberal self-loathing observing it invokes. The second image is identical to the first, and appears among the pages of Richard Wright and Edwin Rosskam’s 12 Million Black Voices (also 1941), a narrative of black southern sharecropping and the Great Migration northward that combines text by Wright with a selection of images Rosskam made from the Farm Security Administration archives (the institution that owned Evans’s image). What appears as the grave of a white southern tenant farmer in one text thus becomes that of a black southern sharecropper in another work that appeared the same year. In concealing the identity—racial, cultural, gender—of its occupant, the grave in the photograph becomes most revealing at precisely the moment when it is most opaque; in the context of Depression documentary’s narratives of dispossession, exploitation, and suffering, Evans’s image is laden with meanings in excess of its original documentary intent.
The extent to which the Great Depression as an element of cultural memory has been created and maintained through the circulation of a few well-known photographs can be confirmed by invoking such familiar pictorial representations as Evans’s far better known portrait of Annie Mae Gudger, Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother, or any number of images from Margaret Bourke-White’s You Have Seen Their Faces; in many ways, our conception of the Depression is these images that are impossible to dissociate from it. Within such an “image environment,” saturated with public memory and collective nostalgia, photographs like Evans’s picture of a grave sometimes float free from their archives to assume lives of their own. Through its “translation” from one textual setting to another, the photograph of the grave raises issues inherent to the discursive spaces within which such images continue to circulate. These issues include the interplay between photographs and their contexts (including the language of the texts within which they appear); the uneven geography that accounted, during the Depression, for contiguities and disjunctions between the rural and the backward on the one hand, and the urban and the hypermodern on the other; and the precarious dynamics of representation and cultural appropriation involved in documenting racial, economic, and regional disparities. Situating Evans’s image of the grave at the nexus of these questions concerning culture and its representation enables us to identify and begin to map out a set of linkages, exchanges, and tensions occurring across the racial divide as they became legible within the compass of documentary practices.
The image is characteristic of Evans’s work at the time: shot from the middle distance, its angle cast slightly downward, the photo captures in crisp detail the clods of dirt heaped on a fresh grave, bookended by rough-hewn boards, the one at the grave’s head longer and more prominent, and topped with a single china dish, situated at roughly the middle of the mound. Evans took the photograph during his now-infamous summer 1936 trip southward with Agee on assignment for Fortune magazine, a trip on which, by agreement with his then-employer Roy Stryker, head of the Farm Security Administration’s photography division, all of Evans’s negatives were to become the property of the Administration. When the image was reproduced nearly five years later in the pages of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, it appeared on the penultimate page of the book’s section of photographs, facing the image of a gathering on the porch of a country post office and followed on the next page by the final image in the sequence, a perplexing depiction of a totem in the shape of a primitive cross draped with amulet-like gourds against a backdrop of open sky. The suggestion by this arrangement of images of a sequence of death and Christlike resurrection seems entirely deliberate; the viewer is left with a strong impression of rural folk rituals (the placing of the dish on the grave, the erecting of the totem) that inevitably appear primitive and superstitious in the implied contrast set up between the photographer and his presumed audience of middle-class readers peering into this world on one side of the lens, and the figures in Evans’s photographs who look out from it, returning the camera’s gaze on the other.
By design, Evans’s images were gathered in a section of their own preceding Agee’s text and unaccompanied by captions, or text of any kind. Over four hundred pages from the image of the grave, near the end of his text, Agee has this to say about the graves in a graveyard he happens upon (the same one, we may presume, where Evans shot the photograph):
There are [graves] about which there can be no mistake: they are the graves of the poorest of the farmers and of the tenants. Mainly they are the graves with the pine headboards; or without them.
When the grave is still young, it is very sharply distinct, and of a peculiar form. The clay is raised in a long and narrow oval with a sharp ridge, the shape exactly of an inverted boat. A fairly broad board is driven at the head; a narrower one, sometimes only a stob, at the feet . . . On some of these boards names and dates have been written or printed in hesitant letterings, in pencil or in crayon, but most of them appear never to have been touched in this way... A great many of these graves, perhaps half to two thirds of those which are still distinct, have been decorated, not only with shrunken flowers in their cracked vases and with bent targets of blasted flowers, but otherwise as well . . . On several graves which I presume to be those of women, there is at the center the prettiest or the oldest and most valued piece of china: on one, a blue glass butter dish whose cover is a setting hen; on another, an intricate milk-colored glass basket; on others, ten-cent-store candy dishes and iridescent vases; on one, a pattern of white and colored buttons. On other graves there are small and thick white butter dishes of the sort which are used in lunch-rooms, and by the action of rain these stand free of the grave on slender turrets of clay. (436-38)
Here, the text continues to indulge its tendency toward grandiose descriptions of the everyday objects through which it renders its account of Southern tenant farming—a tendency Jacques Rancière has recently described as the text’s “inexhaustible totality.” Like these objects, and like the bodies of Agee’s tenant farmers in life, the graves become subjected to the pressures of their harsh environment as they are slowly worn down until they are virtually indistinguishable from the earth from which they have been hewn. The only features left to mark these graves, whose makers lack the resources to provide more lasting memorials, are the residues of the lives of their inhabitants: cheap commodities of the sort that Agee also encounters in his intrusive inventories of the objects in the tenant farm families’ homes. The cataloging of these things is a detail through which Agee’s critique becomes all the more trenchant: here, the text suggests, life is held cheaply. Agee’s description sets up a strong link across the text with Evans’s image, without ever invoking the image specifically—an instance of the “dialectic of exchange and resistance” W. J. T. Mitchell identifies as taking place between text and image in Agee and Evans’s collaboration. Agee’s minute rendering of the scene in language balances Evans’s photograph of it where both suggest rituals of memorializing the dead and even evoke the idea of Christian redemption.
The image assumes an altogether different meaning within the context of 12 Million Black Voices, a work whose origins lay in Wright’s commission by the Viking Press, following the success of his 1940 novel Native Son, to provide an essay to accompany a selection of images culled from the Farm Security Administration’s archive of over 65,000 photographs. The work differs from other documentary books of its time in that the images have been curated, under the direction of Edwin Rosskam, rather than having been created for the specific purpose of inclusion within this project. While it is tempting to consider the decision to use Evans’s photograph of the grave as a creative—and deliberate—appropriation or translation, Famous Men had yet to appear in published form; the choice of this image in particular thus remains something of an anomalous yet revealing coincidence, and may speak, more than anything else, to what historian Nicholas Natanson has described as a paucity of images of African Americans in the FSA archives relative to their white counterparts.
Like other documentary texts of its period, Wright’s essay interrogates and even challenges the epistemological stakes inherent in the documentary image. From its opening salvo, the text calls into question what Eduardo Cadava has called “the dream of knowing and seeing that structures the history of photography, that informs the desire of the photographic event” (Words of Light: Theses on the Photography of History , 7). Wright’s text begins with a claim to this effect: “Each day when you see us black folk upon the dusty land of the farms or upon the hard pavement of the city streets, you usually take us for granted and think you know us, but our history is far stranger than you suspect, and we are not what we seem” (10; emphasis mine). Appearances, Wright suggests, invariably mislead. The actual conditions affecting black people’s lives under the racist and exploitative logic of Jim Crow contrast sharply with the creations of “mighty artists”—the movies, the radio, the newspapers, the magazines, the Church—who have “painted one picture: charming, idyllic, romantic” (35). The text thus proposes to situate itself as a pedagogy for those who would misrecognize, mistaking form for substance, the merely visible for the actually knowable. It thus questions the status of vision as a privileged epistemological mode, challenging the cultural authority of photography. For if photography’s power lies in its proclivities to transparency and to bringing its objects to light, Wright’s inclusive, racialized “we” remains resistant to the probing of the photographic lens. Read in these terms, the photograph of the grave becomes a sort of anti-photograph, withholding its meanings from the scrutiny of the camera just as the mound of earth in the image obscures the body beneath from sight.
Yet it is possible to read the image of the grave. Moreover, it is impossible, given the image’s context, not to connect it with the history of traumatic violence adumbrated in Wright’s text—a history whose primal scene is the Middle Passage. Wright’s “we” belies its idealized image as a subservient and folksy people close to its roots in the soil as text and images collude to decenter the familiar story of the black experience in America. Wright will end the first section of his text by claiming, “[w]e black men and women in America today, as we look back upon scenes of rapine, sacrifice, and death, seem to be children of a devilish aberration, descendants of an interval of nightmare in history, fledglings of a period of amnesia on the part of men who once dreamed a great dream and forgot” (27). The images are here to remind us: inserted within a powerful sequence of photographs depicting rural poverty, agricultural labor, and racialized violence (including the gruesome photo of a lynching victim surrounded by the stern, triumphant faces of his apparent killers and a photo of a crowd of people watching a shack become consumed in flames), Evans’s grave suggests forms of death that cannot be mourned due to their anonymity, their ubiquity. Amid the book’s many images of earth in scenes of planting and harvesting, the clodded soil covering the grave creates an unsettling visual analogue, as if to suggest that what is actually being planted in the preceding images are corpses. Alongside the image on the facing page—depicting an idle plow with a barren landscape in the background—the grave presents itself as the final stop in the narrative suggested by this section of the book. (As if this meaning were less than clear, the text’s heavy-handed caption, split by the page break separating the images themselves, reads, “When Queen Cotton dies . . . / . . . how many of us will die with her?”)
Photography’s relationship with death is one of its best documented aspects; Susan Sontag has famously asserted that “[a]ll photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s ‘relentless melt’” (On Photography , 15). Roland Barthes has likewise noted that photography “produces death while trying to preserve life” (Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography , 92). Eduardo Cadava has echoed these claims, observing the photographic image’s tendency to reveal the “posthumous character of our lived experience. The home of the photographed is the cemetery” (Words of Light, 8). The image of the grave literalizes this posthumous relationship between the photographic image and the flux of lived experience, cannily presenting the grave as its subject. Evans’s work seems implicitly aware of its place in the history of a medium whose early functions included photographing corpses so the bereaved could possess a final image of the deceased; other photographs included in Famous Men, such as the image of the sleeping child whose face is covered by a sheet, testify to this awareness. (The image induces a shock that is scarcely alleviated many pages later, when we learn that the child is the sleeping Squinchy Gudger, whose mother has covered him to keep away the flies.) What Evans could not have intended, however, was the image’s translation and resignification by Rosskam and Wright’s text—a process enabled in equal measures by the institutional apparatus within which the photograph was taken, and by the transmissibility of such images within a Depression-era image culture in which the meanings of suffering, black or white, remained up for grabs, equally admissible of being appropriated for the purposes of reactionary and progressive agendas.
Evans’s image of the grave readily inserts itself into both narratives and the histories they inscribe. What remains beyond our view, concealed within the anonymous privacy of the grave, only to be guessed at on the basis of various contextual cues, is the particular, embodied history of its occupant. In his late collection of notes titled “On the Concept of History,” roughly contemporary with the image(s) I have been discussing here, Walter Benjamin constructs a photographic metaphor for history when he writes that “[t]he true image of the past flits by. The past can be seized only as an image that flashes up at the moment of its recognizability, and is never seen again . . . For it is an irretrievable image of the past which threatens to disappear in any present that does not recognize itself as intended in that image” (Selected Writings Vol. 4 , 390-91). Evans’s grave flashes up before us in all its inscrutable uncanniness, mute yet resolutely and hauntingly present. Heeding Benjamin’s warning, we might say that the grave becomes a cipher for the collateral damage of modernity and its uneven effects across the color line. Recognizing our own moment in the image would entail acknowledging a long history of attempts to elide the acutely lived, painfully knotted logics of race and class within the begrudging inclusivity of national narratives. It would entail acknowledging white dismissals of the claim that “black lives matter” made in the wake of Ferguson and Baltimore. It would entail acknowledging the ways in which the administration of a president with a record of upholding systemic racism has attempted to replace the knowledge of slavery’s historic wounds with an invented narrative of white victimhood. In the slippages and disjunctions between its two iterations, Evans’s photograph reveals the precise nature of the contents of the grave it depicts: we project our own desire onto its earthen mound when we construct narratives to redeem the past and memorialize its victims.