By Eileen Drennen
If you’re a fan of Eudora Welty’s novels and short stories, you already admire her sharp eye for character and place, the way she spins a world from mere sentences.
But the Southern literary giant also turned her lens upon “the singularity in people,” as she called it, and the rural and city landscapes she loved.
In 40 photographs and selections from her prose, a new exhibit at the Atlanta History Center provides a chance to see both of the ways in which she practiced her narrative art.
“The camera,” she wrote, in her memoir “One Writer’s Beginnings,” was “a hand-held auxiliary of wanting-to-know.”
Fascinated equally with words and pictures, the Mississippi writer was pulled in both directions at one early point in her life, says Welty scholar Pearl McHaney, who will lecture on the interplay of Welty’s dual narrative careers on March 22.
Welty had applied to be one of the photographers documenting the South for the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, but lost out to folks like Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and Ben Shahn. Welty did get a WPA job in Mississippi, as a junior publicity agent for the federal program, McHaney said, which had Welty documenting a range of its projects in her home state and allowing her to take her own photographs along the way. Though she was covering the same ground as Evans and company, Welty’s pictures had a much different feel.
She was a Southerner, for one thing, and wasn’t hampered by “any government agenda,” such as being told to, say, “get more poor whites,” McHaney said, in the ways that some of program’s official photographers might be.
“Consequently,” McHaney says, “her photographs from the 1930s show much more of the human side, and the built environment side, that we don’t see otherwise.”
Welty preferred to shoot unposed portraits of people in their natural environments, and scenes of Southern life as it unfolded on porches, churches, and fields.
The traveling exhibit was developed by the Museum of Mobile in partnership with the Southern Literary Trail, and enhanced locally by the History Center, which has added books, cameras and video components.
The curator’s idea, McHaney says, was to pair pictures and words without attempting to match them up in any literal way. The title of the sho
w comes from Welty’s preface to her 1971 photo book called One Time, One Place: Mississippi in the Depression, in which she wrote:
“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.”
“Eudora Welty: Exposures and Reflections”
Atlanta History Center, 130 W. Paces Ferry Road, 404-814-4000
Feb. 5-May 8. $11-$16.50; free for members.
Lecture: “Eudora Welty: Narratives of the South in Word and Image,” by Pearl McHaney, associate professor of 20th-century American literature at Georgia State University. March 22 at 7 p.m.