James Aggee: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

Photo 402 // Reading Response // Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

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It was in 1936 that James Agee and Walker Evans, on assignment for Fortune magazine, drove into rural Alabama and entered the world of three families of white cotton farmers.


Below is a pretty long excerpt from the chapter Near A Church. I highlighted the whole paragraph when I was reading. His detailed descriptions painted a perfect picture of the space for me as a reader. His writing is obsessive, every single detail mentioned. Certain things I don’t think many people would notice.

“I helped get the camera ready and we stood away and I watched what would be trapped, possessed, fertilized, in the leisures and shyness which are a phase of all for any object: searching out and registering in myself all its lines, planes, stresses of relationship, along diagonals withdrawn and approached, and vertical to the slightly off-centered door, and broadside, and at several distances, and near, examining merely the ways of the wood, and the nails, the three new boards of differing lengths that were let in above the left of the door, the staring small white porcelain knob, the sole smoothed stairlifts, the wrung stance of thick steeple, the hewn wood stoblike spike at the sky, the old hasp and new padlock, the random shuttered window glass whose panes were like the surfaces of springs, the fat gold fly who sang and botched, box organ, bright stops, hung charts, wrecked hymnals, the platform, pine lectern doilied, pressed-glass pitcher, suspended lamp, four funeral chairs, the little stove with long swan throat aluminum in hard sober shade, a button in sun, a flur of lint, a torn card of Jesus among children:”

I thought the passage about the story of James Agee approaching the two African American’s that passed him on their walk, also in Near a Church, was extremely interesting. This specific story that he recounted showed how culture and societal norms, especially during that time in history and even today, depends entirely on location. He was approaching the man and woman entirely with good intent, but frightened them because he was a white man and that was something they were not used to.

The quote below was definitely my favorite piece in the entire reading. When living in New York City this was something I would always think about, I also often think about it here in State College — how there are entire apartment buildings with hundreds and thousands of people’s lives piled right on top of each other, right next to each other. So much life moving in and out of all of the buildings, so many people connected to one another, but not really connected.

“All over the whole round earth and in the settlements, the towns, and the great iron stones of cities, people are drawn inward within their little shells of rooms, and are to be seen in their wondrous and pitiful actions through the surfaces of their lighted windows by thousands, by millions, little golden aquariums, in chairs, reading, setting tables, sewing, playing cards, not talking, talking, laughing inaudibly, mixing drinks, at radio dials, eating, in shirt-sleeves, carefully dressed, courting, teasing, loving, seducing, undressing, leaving the room empty with light…and no one can care, beyond that room; and none can be cared for, by any beyond that room.”

He points out the inner conflicts he encounters when he take photographs. Throughout the reading, he raises these questions: “Who are you who will read these words and study these photographs, and through what cause, by what chance, and for what purpose, and by what right do you qualify to, and what will you do about it”. I think these questions are what photographers often encounter on every story they do. He was so involved with their lives while still being an outsider, still acting as a “spy” or a fly on the wall.

But it is not only their bodies but their postures that I know, and their weight on the bed or on the floor, so that I lie down inside each one as if exhausted in a bed, and I become not my own shape and weight and self, but that of each of them, the whole of it, sunken in sleep like stones; so that I know almost the dreams they will not remember, and the soul and body of each of these seven, and of all of them together in this room in sleep, as if they were music I were hearing, each voice in relation to all the others, and all audible, singly, and as one organism, and a music that cannot be communicated: and thus they lie in this silence, and rest.

James Agee was deeply aware of his own presence in the lives of his subjects that he was ashamed of his complicity in their exploitation. As photographers, artists and journalists we gather information for stories of other’s lives, that could be very different from our own, and we carry out our work often unaware of the potential for misperception or misjudgment. Agee even considered the camera “a weapon, a stealer of images and souls, a gun, an evil-eye.”  

I want you and Mr. Walker to know how much we all like you, because you make us feel easy with you; we don’t have to act any different from what it comes natural to act, and we don’t have to worry what you’re thinking about us, it’s just like you was our own people and had always lived here with us, you all are so kind, and nice, and quiet, and easygoing, and we wisht you wasn’t never going to go away but stay on here with us, and I just want to tell you how much we all keer about you; Annie Mae says the same, and you please tell Mr. walker, too, if I don’t see him before I go.

^^ I really liked this quote from Emma. She was very genuine and truly meant that she liked having James and Walker around. I thought it was a special moment and showed how Emma thought of them as equals and that they were of the same people. I think of as a photographer, a writer, artist, etc. it’s nice to know in this situation that you are not a burden.

Agee’s writing really made me think more about my own work and how sometimes I tend to maybe not ask enough questions. That i’m more worried about getting the perfect image for my viewer, but maybe not answering the questions I have. Agee was an outsider living in an environment so unlike his own that his own experiences is just as much a part of the story as the story of the families. I love how he’s aware of his feelings and that he includes his emotions, I think it adds a very powerful and admirable aspect to the piece. It makes it easier for others who could not in any other way relate, be able to connect to the story, even if it’s not the family’s story it’s Agee’s.

night, annie mae; night, george; night, immer; night, annie mae; night, louise;night; night; good night, good night.

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