Walker Evans (American, 19031975)
Gelatin silver print; 8 1/4 x 5 11/16 in. (20.9 x 14.4 cm)
Purchase, 2000 Benefit Fund, 2001 (2001.415)
Walker Evans made the vast majority of his Hale County photographs in and around the four-room cabin of Floyd and Allie Mae Burroughs, where he and James Agee lived on and off for several weeks in August 1936. The family owned nothingnot their home, land, mule, or farm tools, all of which they leased from their landlord. Burroughs was a cotton "sharecropper" or "halver"; at harvest time, he had to give his landlord half his cotton and corn crop, and pay off any other debts incurred during the year for food, seed, fertilizer, and medicine. In 1935, the family had ended the year $12 in debt.
Evans made four photographs of Allie Mae Burroughs against the rear wall of the family's cabin. Although compositionally similar, they record distinct facial expressions ranging from bemused cooperation to brooding anger and resentmentmoods conveyed by a slight tilt of the head, the furrows around the eyes, the angle of the pursed mouth. In 1938, Evans selected for his seminal publication, American Photographs, the negative that shows Allie Mae at her most content, welcoming, and accessible. But in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Evans presented a more closed and irritated Allie Mae, a troubled victim of both the Depression and the camera's burrowing eye. It is this portrait, with the psychological ambiguity of a Mona Lisa, which was seized upon by early reviewers as the book's quintessential image.