In July 1936, the Depression-era photographer Walker Evans traveled to the American South to document the lives and environments of sharecropper families. Evans found a region fallen to dust, swept bare and stark—and the images and stories he collected, in partnership with the writer James Agee, were published in 1941 as Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Part ethnography, part journalistic experiment, the book paired Agee’s text with Evans’s images, which were included portfolio-style and without comment.
Of the living spaces the images document, Agee noted that the “general odds and ends are set very plainly and squarely discrete from one another. . . [giving] each object a full strength it would not otherwise have.”
Last spring, Orion, in partnership with the food magazine Gastronomica, hosted “An Evening of Art, Literature and Food”—an event in celebration of the 2012 Berkshire Women Writers Festival—at the Williams College Museum of Art, in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Orion’s Hannah Fries and Gastronomica’s Darra Goldstein asked writers Ruth Reichl, Francine Prose, and Elizabeth Graver, and poets Ellen Doré Watson and Patty Crane, to reflect on Walker Evans’s photograph, “Kitchen Wall, Alabama Homestead” (1936), and to imagine the lives lived just beyond that wall’s dusty slats.
The writers’ responses are collected below; click through to read them in their entirety.
“What I remember most is how strange it seemed, later, going back to civilization with its bathtubs and its toilets. Their lack had been another kind of freedom, and I’d liked it fine.”
Ellen Doré Watson
“Knowing nothing, we voyeurs / must know: dignity survives knots and / nail-holes, unnoticed, in un-flattering light.”
“Certainly someone, or several people, are present in ‘Kitchen Wall, Alabama Farmstead.’ Young or old, we can’t say, though we might hope the farmer will live long enough to have more things to eat with.”
“What we have: An old washboard with a painted black horse galloping across the top. An egg candler hanging on the wall. Wooden spoons. Chainsaw but he doesn’t use it, prefers the feel of wood, to find, haul, saw, chop, burn.”
“The wall is exhausted and illiterate, / wears the one pair of shoes, / and at night, when they’re all asleep, / it takes the sharp meat fork and the one knife / and goes out hunting.”