On July 16, 1936, photographer Walker Evans (1903-75) took a leave of absence from the Farm Security Administration (FSA) to accept a summer assignment with Fortune magazine. Evans, who had begun working as a photographer in 1928, had developed a modest reputation by the time that he was hired in October 1935 by Roy Stryker, then leader of the FSA photographic section. Stryker agreed to grant him leave for the magazine assignment on the condition that his photographs remained government property.
Evans and the writer James Agee spent several weeks among sharecropper families in Hale County, Alabama. The article they produced documented in words and images the lives of poor Southern farmers afflicted by the Great Depression; their work, however, did not meet Fortune‘s expectations and was rejected for publication.
Evans’ desire to produce photographs that were “pure record not propaganda” did not harmonize with Stryker’s emphasis on the use of the image to promote social activism. Soon after the Alabama series was completed, Evans returned to New York. There Evans and Agee reworked their material and searched for another publisher. In 1941, the expanded version of their story was published in book form as Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, now recognized as a masterpiece of the art of photojournalism.
Walker Evans went on to exhibit and publish his work (he was a staff photographer at Fortune, 1945-65) and to teach at the Yale University School of Art and Architecture. James Agee became one of America’s most influential film critics as well as a poet, novelist, and screenwriter. James Agee died in 1955; Walker Evans died in 1975.
- Search the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives collection on the phrase Hale County, to view photographs taken by Evans in Hale County, Alabama, which furnished material for Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Additional essays about the collection, participating photographers and examples of their work are available in the Articles and Essays section of the presentation. See also: Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Color Photographs.
- A complementary collection, Voices from the Dust Bowl: The Charles L. Todd and Robert Sonkin Migrant Worker Collection, 1940-1941, documents the everyday life of residents in the FSA’s migrant work camps in central California during 1940 and 1941. Many of the individuals whose stories and songs are gathered in this collection shared both the socioeconomic and historic experience of the individuals documented by James Agee and Walker Evans.
- Search on depression in American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940 for depression-era stories.