By ANGIE CARNATHAN
The Mississippi State University Department of Art begins a new exhibition today titled “Eudora Welty in Context: Representing Race in New Deal Photography.” The exhibition’s photographs document people in Mississippi during the Great Depression. The pictures will be on display in McComas Hall until Oct. 28.
The photographs show how Eudora Welty took a very different approach photographing people of the era than that of her northern counterparts.
“The exhibition committee chose this subject matter for a couple of reasons,” said Tony Morris, head of the selection committee. “First, we tried to connect The MSU Maroon Edition book selection of Eudora Welty’s “The Optimist’s Daughter” with courses being taught in the Department of Art this semester such as history of photography and race and gender in art. Additionally, we wanted the theme to inform our exhibition to distinguish our show from other current Welty exhibitions.”
Elizabeth Crews, assistant professor of English at Shorter University in Georgia, was chosen as this year’s Eudora Welty Fellow by the Mississippi Department of Archives and the Eudora Welty Foundation. She is writing her dissertation on “Delta Wedding” and “The Optimist’s Daughter.”
Crews said she believes there is a direct correlation between Welty’s writing and her photography, primarily her understanding of humanity and the multiple layers of the human condition.
“Welty wasn’t paid to take the photographs she took then; the WPA was only paying her to write,” Crews said. “However, she realized that the people who were sent to document people in the South had their own agenda. They didn’t care to know too much about their subjects or they lives they were leading, and Welty’s only agenda was understanding the people of Mississippi. It’s that empathy that made Welty’s photography as true as her writing.”
Morris, too, said many of the Northern photographers with the New Deal arts program in the South tended to treat their subjects as stereotypes.
“Because Welty was from Mississippi,” he said, “she took the time to get to know the subjects in her photos and many times considered the photo to be a collaboration between herself and the people in the photos.”
The gallery will be featuring the works of Welty and some of the Northern photographers sent by the WPA to show the difference made by having someone behind the camera who knew and cared about the people made.
Other photographers featured in the show include Dorothea Lange, Ben Shahn, Walker Evans, Russell Lee and Arthur Rothstein.
“Because the images by Welty and her New Deal colleagues all imagine race in the South as poor and rural, we will also be exhibiting historical photos from the Smith Robertson Museum and Cultural Center,” Morris said. “These photos document the predominantly black Farish Street Historical District in Jackson as a counterpoint to the images produced by the white New Deal photographers.”
Morris said the Welty and New Deal photography images are on loan from the Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson and the historical photos of the Farish Street historical district are from the Smith Robertson Museum and Cultural Center.
In 1971, Welty herself explained her approach to photography in Jackson:
“In taking all these pictures, I was attended 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.”
The MSU Art Gallery is located on the bottom floor of McComas Hall on the MSU campus. It is open Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. An opening reception will be held on Sept. 8 from 5:30 p.m. until 7:30 p.m.