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From the Outside In: Walker Evans’s Allie Mae Burroughs, 1936

By Jane Robbins Mize

The atria on the first floor of the Ransom Center are surrounded by windows featuring etched reproductions of images from the collections. The windows offer visitors a hint of the cultural treasures to be discovered inside. From the Outside In is a series that highlights some of these images and their creators. Interact with all of the windows at From the Outside In: A Visitor’s Guide to the Windows.

 

The haunting eyes of Allie Mae Burroughs look straight at us in this photograph taken by Walker Evans in the summer of 1936. Her gaze has a certain resignation, and her mouth doesn’t quite smile. This is the face of a woman old before her time, who has known not only hard work but the realization that her children have gone to bed hungry. Allie Mae Burroughs was 27, a mother of four and the wife of Alabama sharecropper Floyd Burroughs, when Walker Evans photographed her for what would become an iconic image of the Great Depression in the United States. The Burroughs family’s life was chronicled in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee and Walker Evans.

 

James Agee was a journalist working for Fortune magazine in 1936 when he was given an assignment to document the lives of poor white Southern farmers. At Agee’s insistence, photographer Walker Evans, finishing up his assignments as a Farm Security Administration photographer, accompanied him to Hale County, Alabama, in July and August of that year. Agee and Evans happened upon three men who had just been told that even under the New Deal programs designed to aid the poor, their families did not qualify for help. The journalists ended up spending weeks documenting the everyday lives of these men and their families through photographs, detailed lists of the contents of their homes, and a text miscellany that includes poems, long reflections, bits of dialog, and a survey response to the Partisan Review.

 

Agee created a portrait of life in the Depression that was too comprehensive for Fortune to publish, and he considered the story too important to be cut and rewritten in a manner that would suit the magazine. It took until 1941 for Agee’s notes and Evans’s photographs to be compiled into a manuscript that was accepted for publication. By that time, however, the war in Europe was reigniting the American economy, and the Depression was no longer a story that interested the public. The first printing of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men sold little more than 500 copies. Interest in the text was renewed in the 1960s, however, and today the book is considered not only a great work about the Depression but also a masterpiece of photography and writing.

 

Evans is a celebrated photographer known for the straight-forward elegance of his style and for his study of American culture from the late 1920s to the 1970s. In Looking at Photographs (1973), John Szarkowski, Director of the Photography Department at the Museum of Modern Art, wrote: “Evans’s work… was puritanically economical, precisely measured, frontal, unemotional, dryly textured, insistently factual, qualities that seemed more appropriate to a bookkeeper’s ledger than to art. But in time it became clear that [his art] constitutes a personal survey of the interior resources of the American tradition, a survey based on a sensibility that found poetry and complexity where most earlier travelers had found only drab statistics or fairy tales.”

 

The Harry Ransom Center holds the James Agee collection, which includes an original typescript of the book and nearly 300 prints produced by Walker Evans over the course of this project.

 

Ransom Center volunteer Karen White wrote this post

Sanora Babb: “An Owl on Every Post”

By Ady Wetegrove

Cover of Sanora Babb's "An Owl on Every Post."
Cover of Sanora Babb's "An Owl on Every Post."

Known for her evocative depictions of life in the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression, author Sanora Babb shares her family’s perpetual bouts with struggles against crop-failure, starvation, mortgage foreclosures, and loneliness in her memoir An Owl on Every Post. Experiencing pioneer life in a one-room dugout shelter, Babb viewed the land—which both tormented and beguiled her—from an up-close, eye-level perspective.

When her family relocated from the security of a small town to an isolated 320-acre farm on the western plains, the young Babb sought to find beauty and joy in her vast and desolate surroundings. The result of her introspection is a body of work that includes essays, short stories, poems, and five books.

In a new edition of her long-out-of-print memoir, An Owl on Every Post, Babb writes with immediacy and lyricism about growing up on the Colorado Plains. An Owl on Every Post reveals the values—courage, pride, determination, and love—that kept Babb’s family from despair and total ruin. The memoir, originally published in 1971, is now available with a new introduction by Pulitzer Prize–winning author William Kennedy.

The Ransom Center holds the Sanora Babb papers, and some of the materials related to An Owl on Every Post are highlighted in the Center’s web exhibition Sanora Babb: Stories from the American High Plains.

Digital collection highlights photos taken in Corpus Christi during Great Depression

By Courtney Reed

The Ransom Center has made available online the digital collection “The Itinerant Photographer: Photographs of Corpus Christi Businesses in the 1930s.”

The collection highlights photographs taken of businesses in Corpus Christi during the Great Depression. The project to make these materials accessible online was funded by a TexTreasures grant from the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services to the Texas State Library and Archives Commission under the provisions of the Library Services and Technology Act.

Until now, access to the collection was limited, due to the fragility of the collection material and its uncataloged status. The Center has now constructed a Web site as a portal to the itinerant photographer collection. It is an introduction to the collection and its imagery, and a searchable gallery of the 473 glass plate negatives provides a comprehensive exhibition of this physically fragile collection. All the imagery on this Web site was produced from the glass plate negatives. An online finding aid of the collection has been created as well.

In early 1934, a traveling photographer arrived in Corpus Christi, Texas, searching for businesses that would pay him to take pictures of their establishments. Part photographer, part salesman, he went door to door offering his services. He left town after only a few weeks and abandoned his glass plate negatives with a local photographer because they no longer had any commercial value to him.

The images portray a wide range of businesses operating in Corpus Christi, which was relatively prosperous in the midst of the Great Depression, including those in the agricultural industry, retail and wholesale businesses, city and county government offices, manufacturing businesses, and those offering numerous types of services.

Please click on the thumbnails below to view full-size images.