Eudora Welty on the Difficult Art of Seeing Each Other and the Power of Photography as a Dignifying Force
By Maria Popova
“When we learned to speak to, and listen to, rather than to strike or be struck by, our fellow human beings, we found something worth keeping alive, worth possessing, for the rest of time,” Eudora Welty (April 13, 1909–July 23, 2001) wrote in her beautiful reflection on how friendship helped human language evolve. But long before she turned to language as her raw material and became one of the most beloved authors of the twentieth century, she poured her warmhearted storytelling genius into another humanizing art of speaking and listening: photography.
Just after Welty returned home to Mississippi from college, the Great Depression struck. When her disarming job application to the New Yorker fell on deaf ears, Welty, like many of her generation, found her first full-time job with the Works Progress Administration. She was hired as a junior publicity agent for the Mississippi State office and dispatched to the state’s eighty-two counties, where she set about understanding daily life in the Union’s poorest state and those who lived it — she traveled on dirt roads, helped set up country fair booths, talked to cow farmers, interviewed local judges, and rode on the bookmobile route “distributing books into open hands like the treasure that they are.”
Along the way, Welty took several hundred photographs of the people she met — portraits of personhood captured with caring and compassionate eyes, testaments to the tenacity of human dignity even amid the direst of circumstances. Nearly four decades later, one hundred of these striking duotone photographs were collected in One Time, One Place: Mississippi in the Depression (public library), published in 1971 — two years before Welty received the Pulitzer Prize for her novel The Optimist’s Daughter. That Welty released the book just as the Civil Rights movement was gathering critical momentum was hardly coincidental — a choice of timing that lent her sympathetic, deeply humane photographs new layers of meaning, layers that come unpeeled anew today.
In the preface, penned in March of 1971, Welty considers how the camera, when operated with a sensitive and sympathetic curiosity, can dignify its subjects, becoming a tool of trust and mutual understanding:
In taking all these pictures, I was attended, I now know, by an angel — a presence of trust. In particular, the photographs of black persons by a white person may not testify soon again to such intimacy. It is trust that dates the pictures now, more than the vanished years. And had I no shame as a white person for what message might lie in my pictures of black persons? No, I was too busy imagining myself into their lives to be open to any generalities. I wished no more to indict anybody, to prove or disprove anything by my pictures, than I would have wished to do harm to the people in them, or have expected any harm from them to come to me.
When a heroic face like that of the woman in the buttoned sweater … looks back at me from her picture, what I respond to now, just as I did the first time, is not the Depression, not the Black, not the South, not even the perennially sorry state of the whole world, but the story of her life in her face. And though I did not take these pictures to prove anything, I think they most assuredly do show something — which is to make a far better claim for them. Her face to me is full of meaning more truthful and more terrible and, I think, more noble than any generalization about people could have prepared me for or could describe for me now. I learned from my own pictures, one by one, and had to; for I think we are the breakers of our own hearts.
Welty articulates the vital difference between capturing reality and conveying truth:
I learned quickly enough when to click the shutter, but what I was becoming aware of more slowly was a story-writer’s truth: the thing to wait on, to reach there in time for, is the moment in which people reveal themselves. You have to be ready, in yourself; you have to know the moment when you see it. The human face and the human body are eloquent in themselves, and stubborn and wayward, and a snapshot is a moment’s glimpse (as a story may be a long look, a growing contemplation) into what never stops moving, never ceases to express for itself something of our common feeling. Every feeling waits upon its gesture. Then when it does come, how unpredictable it turns out to be, after all.
In a sentiment of unshakable poignancy amid today’s media culture — a culture where the nuanced realities and complexities of entire lives are reduced to fragmentary glimpses and soundbites — Welty reminds us of the monumental difference between what Susan Sontag called “aesthetic consumerism” and what one might call aesthetic contemplation, to which there are no shortcuts and which is the only path, however long and winding, to truly seeing one another:
We come to terms as well as we can with our lifelong exposure to the world, and we use whatever devices we may need to survive. But eventually, of course, our knowledge depends upon the living relationship between what we see going on and ourselves. If exposure is essential, still more so is the reflection. Insight doesn’t happen often on the click of the moment, like a lucky snapshot, but comes in its own time and more slowly and from nowhere but within. The sharpest recognition is surely that which is charged with sympathy as well as with shock — it is a form of human vision. And that is of course a gift. We struggle through any pain or darkness in nothing but hope that we may receive it, and through any term of work in the prayer to keep it.
My wish, indeed my continuing passion, would be not to point the finger in judgment but to part a curtain, that invisible shadow that falls between people, the veil of indifference to each other’s presence, each other’s wonder, each other’s human plight.
One Time, One Place radiates precisely this seeingness of our human wonder and human plight. Complement Welty’s insightful prefatory words with Teju Cole on how the paradox of photography illustrates the central anxiety of human life and Annie Dillard on the two ways of looking and the secret to truly seeing, then revisit Welty on friendship.
Published September 20, 2016