Annette Trefzer. Exposing Mississippi: Eudora Welty’s Photographic Reflections University Press of Mississippi 2022.
As Harriet Pollack has argued, Welty’s photographs and writing represented race, like gender and power, in the Southern United States as a performance scripted by whiteness. White material advantage over black oppression and economic deprivation is presented as part of a cycle of race and poverty that involves both blacks and whites and troubles and undoes both attempts to stabilize identities. However, while her white characters may be only vaguely aware or turn away from recognizing this relation, negotiating and navigating it is a matter of life and death for her black characters.
Anette Trefzer’s Exposing Mississippi : Eudora Welty’s Photographic Reflections considers the legacy of the producer of iconic representations of the American South, the Depression and the social landscapes of the Jim Crow south. Her photographs are not only scenes of brightness and shadow but capture a sense of racial tensions and the legacy of plantation households and slavery, but the society of small town agricultural economy and the vibrant force of black delta culture. These were curated and published by Welty, notably in her 1971 book One Time, One Place Mississippi in the Deptression: A Snapshot Album.
Welty’s photographs point to something not in the frame, to something else, to a haunting, an extra dimension perhaps (Untitled cemetery monument “ Ellen Moore ”). Topologically, her photographs are of places and scenes where extra dimensions are overlaid on the ground of three-dimensional everyday life. The photographs can be understood in the context of Welty’s literary importance. However some of her photos offer a simplified, documentary quality, framed and focused from a distance to capture a gathering (“ Home Open to the Public, Dunleith ”), the entirety of a facade or the room in which a subject sits (“ Author and Director of the Bird Pageant ”). Often a documentary setting is disrupted by, for example, the passage of a person, their quick pace frozen in the form of legs in a wide V (“ Royal Street, New Orleans ”), the inclusion of part of a person, perhaps a guide or witness (“ Miller ”) or the direction of a subject’s gaze, their attention rapt and focused off-image (“ To Find Plums ”), or one of a group looking directly at the photographer in a knowing way (“ Bird Pageant Costumes ”). This freezes a social moment and overlays the self-awareness of the subject – not of themselves but of the staged quality of the moment, a virtual wink to the camera-holder suggesting a shared meta-awareness of their difference bound in a common moment for the photo.
Welty’s composes her photographs a snapshots that seize an unstaged but selected moment, pulling forth a sliver of everyday interaction as an intervention in both the visualicity of the culture, or what is properly seen and what is not admitted to having been glimpsed. Doing so, involves a photographic placing and spacing in the composition to not only imply a space (captured, and larger than what the photograph displays) but placing and spacing within that social-physical landscape. The pregnant spatial and geometrical relationships in Welty’s compositions make this double spatialization of photography evident. Does this distinguish “visionary modernity” indeed, does it separate a photogrpahic naturalism of the North American style, from the classical compositions of nineteenth century photographers such as Cartier-Bresson who elide the spatial operations in the photographic composition itself?
As an outsider to the United States, a Canadian, I come to Welty and these works informed only by the mediasphere of representations in the likes of Life magazine and the depression-era American New Deal photographic projects on the dustbowl and migrations of the 1920s and 30s. Outsiders are aware of bits of Welty, or simply attracted by the photographs. This anthology does a good job of introducing and synthesizing the visual and literary works.
However, it is clear from her lack of engagement with key black writers in the region and cities such as Jackson, Mississippi, where she lived, such as Richard Wright reflects her awareness of racial injustice and sense of “ southern discomfort ” and individual disempowerment in the face of collective prejudice.* The only flaw of Trefzer’s book is that it is perhaps not explicit enough about Welty’s silence. Given her examination of racial interaction and institutions in her literary work, what is the significance of her choice of racialized subjects, or her pairings of subjects?
On a more subtle level, Trefzer argues that Welty’s photographs speak to the social production of Southern U.S. space from a position where she lacked agency. Welty conceives of an “ invisible shadow ” of discrimination which Susan Donaldson (in Pollack’s book) connects to W.E.B. Dubois’s theory of an African American double consciousness split by race. She argues that Welty rendered visible these invisible rules and boundaries in the ideologically-governed landscape. This racialised and gendered spatialisation, a placing of bodies, identities and groups by skin colour, is accessible to Welty in places of encounter, public spaces, or the sidewalks of small towns. In this telling of Welty’s legacy, we are directed to the visual evidence that her silence is an eloquent challenge, stretching her welcome and the rules of social engagement. In her images, Welty’s subtle realism deceptively encodes transgressions across these social boundaries.
Welty’s visual archive of places of the American South is in a dialogue with an entrenched set of racial ideologies and spatialisations that locked the Black population out of Whites’ institutions. These create a set of unspoken rules about what can and cannot be represented. The mere inclusion of black lives in Welty’s images contests Southern taboos to “ both record and enact cultural politics ,” in the words of Katherine Henninger. Her work of candid images and “ straight ” photography for both documentary and analytical purposes advances what Trefzer refers to as a “ visionary modernity. ”
What struck me about this text’s approach to Welty is the elaboration of the spatial worlds created and assayed by this author and Welty’s own understanding of visualicity in relation to the making of photographs to the point that Trefzer calls it a “ spatial hermeneutic. ” (13)
“ Place is a crucial concept for Welty, whose well-known essay “ Place in Fiction ” (1955) draws on visual metaphors of focus and lens to zoom in on the ways that “ place can focus the gigantic, voracious eye of genius and bring its gaze to point ” (787). …. Place, including its physical texture, constructs and maintains border, propriety and “ normality ” in a society invested in keeping people in their proper places. Her camera work disrupts a spatial economy that seeks to naturalize race, gender and class boundaries… in Mississippi’s segregated landscape. ”(p.10)
Welty’s over-dimensioned gaze is a key to the contemporary quality of her photographs from the 1920s to the close of the century. She traced spatial transformations and the ways that social life was reorganized through economic and political forces from the Depression to the Civil Rights Movements. One mobile space was the circus, a travelling-town, where transgression was enabled under the guise of entertainment, and specifically an economy of attention and looking at the transgressive and improper such as feats of strength, an anti-aesthetic of the monstrous and un-beautiful, and of visual displays of emotion. Its opposite, the static, bureaucratic suburb of rows of graves in cemeteries are surveyed as an iconography and performance space for grief that displaced the theatrical space of nostalgic memory created in nineteenth century Southern graveyards (p.228).
“ Welty’s photographs of the built environment engage the political history and social spatialization of the state government and small town centres of power to trace processes of racial, gendered, and economic inclusion and exclusion. ”(p.15)
There is much more to say about this expansive text which includes numerous illustrations from. Welty’s archive of images. Organized spatially, the chapters focus on Mississippi’s cultural landscapes and social geography and Welty’s intervention through photography in the visual landscape and social constructions of Southern spaces.
-Rob Shields (Univ. of Alberta)
*See “Intimate Strangers” by Ellen Ann Fentress, in The Oxford American, Issue 69. 2010