In the summer of 1936, as I nestled snug in my mother's womb, Fortune magazine sent the young writer James Agee and the photographer Walker Evans to rural Alabama to report on how the Great Depression was affecting the poorest of the poor. For eight weeks they lived with three impoverished sharecropper families. (Pictured above is the family of Bud Fields. Click to enlarge.)
Their combined work never appeared in Fortune, but it was published as a book -- Let Us Now Praise Famous Men -- in 1941. The book was not an immediate success, but decades later, after Agee won a posthumous Pulitzer for A Death in the Family, it found a new audience and eventually a place in the American canon of literary and photographic masterpieces.
The book has a strange, difficult and self-lacerating Preamble in which Agee tries to understand what it is that he and Evans have done. Does art report or create? Have the two artists exploited the families they reported on? How do we discern the truth when we are burdened with so many limitations, preconceptions and personal agendas? How do we make ourselves neutral channels for what is and not for what we wish it to be? Is it possible to be "neutral"? Is it desirable?
These are questions that science and art struggle with perennially, each in its own way. These are questions that each of us should ask about our own constructions of reality. Agee writes:
For in the immediate world, everything is to be discerned, for him who can discern it, and centrally and simply, without dissection into science or digestion into art, but with the whole of consciousness, seeking to perceive it as it stands: so that the aspect of a street in sunlight can roar in the heart of itself like a symphony, perhaps as no symphony can: and all of consciousness is shifted from the imagined, the revised, to the effort to perceive simply the cruel radiance of what is.Agee professes his desire to suspend imagination, so that "there opens before consciousness, and within it, a universe luminous, spacious, incalculably rich and wonderful in each detail, as relaxed and natural to the human swimmer, and as full of glory, as his breathing."
A marvelous aspiration. But impossible, of course. Science strives mightily for "objectivity." The artist too wants to reveal something real and wonderful, a cruel radiance. And always there, between our eyes and the world, is the imagination. And why not? It is the imagination that defines our humanity, the channel by which the world becomes conscious of itself. We read Let Us Now Praise Famous Men or look at Evans' photographs, and we see what is and what should be, creation roaring in the heart of itself and in our hearts too.
(This post originally appeared in May 2011.)