The first thing you need to know about the documentary photography exhibition at the Knoxville Museum of Art is that it’s big: two galleries stuffed with black-and-white photographs of scenes of life and poverty in the American South from three photographers and two eras. The bulk of the prints in Vision, Language, and Influence are from the 1930s, taken by iconic social photographer Walker Evans (from his collaborative book with James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men) and the Mississippi-born Pulitzer winner Eudora Welty, who was employed as a photographer by the WPA before being published as a writer. The rest are from University of Tennessee professor Baldwin Lee, a former student of Evans’ at Yale, who toured the South in the ’80s, and who worked with KMA curator Stephen Wicks to put on the exhibition.
The show is arranged not by artist or chronologically, but by subject matter, whereby we find repeated images, vignettes of private life (beds, shoes), as well as familiar ideas of community (porches, worship services). The layout also provides peeks into stylistic comparisons and coincidences—links as deep as perspective studies and as light as shots of people walking down the street, snapped from behind. However arranged, they are certainly that: the curatorial beating about the head and shoulders is both thorough and somewhat mealy-mouthed.
Wall-mounted boards, larger than most of the photographs in the hall, provide, innocently enough, artist bios and the occasional offer of interpretation in large print. They further go on to include quotes from the artists, which mostly seem in place to establish that whatever the results, all three artists were, in fact, doing remarkably similar work, with remarkably similar attitudes, and so remark upon it we will. This deference to the artists’ articulation of their respective intentions goes on to saddle the exhibition with the somewhat stickier job of addressing, among other things, the overwhelming blackness of the photographs’ subjects and the whiteness of their photographers—Lee, who is Asian-American, being the exception. The acknowledging is done briefly, and rather neatly. In short, all the words seem a bit much, adding too little. (And when you read the placard that includes the Agee quote from Famous Men, wishing the book could have been photographs without text, you can’t help but feel profound exasperation at the missed opportunity.)
From markers of poverty to the poor as subjects themselves, there are touching images everywhere. Though Evans’ often-reproduced pictures of Alabama sharecroppers, particularly “Allie Mae Burroughs, Wife of a Cotton Sharecropper” and “Floyd Burroughs, Cotton Sharecropper,” are difficult to approach with fresh eyes, there’s no denying his ability to create an evocative picture. If Evans’ defining achievements in posed portraiture involve sympathy, Welty’s more candid shots are sometimes sentimental and frequently beautiful. “Chopping Cotton in the Fields,” featuring a skinny woman’s striking silhouette, her back toward the camera, in soft focus against equal sweeps of land and sky, would look right at home in a Chanel spread (though I’m certain the softly flowing skirt and top have been approximated in at least one Calvin Klein Resort collection). These are valuable photographs, and for the range of emotion Evans’ and Welty’s lenses manage to capture, this is a largely serious show. Poverty and disenfranchisement, after all, are no laughing matter.
But it’s Lee’s large-format pieces, having the benefit of 50 years’ worth of social awareness, that reflect the greatest depth and dynamism. Through gestures big (a baby, preoccupied with his bottle, hung on the wall by the collar of its onesie, over a novelty WANTED poster) and small (the way a pair of sunglasses hang cocked from a young man’s waistband), Lee’s images are immediately engaging and packed full of details that suggest intimacy at every turn. Every wide frame and careful posing finds Lee walking a line in which the sitters seem both statuesque and inviting—objectified, but in control, while we peer, with less ease, into their surroundings to gawk at the wood paneling, the dark liquid in a baby’s bottle. Combined with the considerable amount of action—these are, truly, moments in time—in Lee’s staging, what you have are a group of photographs that invite and reward prolonged viewing.
One of the large-print boards in the hall tells us the KMA’s original plan was to create two shows, one for Evans and Walker, and another for Lee. That may have been the wiser option.