September 2012


Géraldine Chouard, Professor at the Dauphine University in Paris (France) specializes in Southern culture with a particular focus on literature, photography and patchwork. She has written a number of articles on Southern literature, in particular on Eudora Welty (published in The Mississippi Quarterly, The Southern Quarterly, The South Atlantic Review).
Géraldine Chouard is the author of two books on Welty :
Eudora Welty. The Poetics of the Body. co-edited with Danièle Pitavy-Souques, University Press of Rennes, 2005.
Eudora Welty et la photographie. Naissance d’une vision. Paris, Editions Michel Houdiard, 2012.
She co-chaired two international conferences and on both occasions, was the curator of a Welty picture exhibit:
“Eudora Welty: The Poetics of the Body” (in collaboration with Danièle Pitavy-Souques, Professor at the University             of Burgundy), University of Rennes II, 17-20 Oct 2002.
Photo exhibit curator: “Mississippi, 1930s: l’œuvre photographique de Eudora Welty” (“Mississippi, 1930s: the photographic work of Eudora Welty”). Rennes City Hall, 17-27 Oct 2002.
SSF (Southern Studies Forum), “Senses of the South” (in collbaoration with Jacques Pothier (Professor the University of Versailles-St Quentin-en-Yvelines) , University of Versailles-St Quentin-en-Yvelines and University of Paris- Diderot, 16-19 Sept 2009.
Photo exhibit: “Welty, Mississippi” (Library of the University of Versailles-St Quentin-en-Yvelines).
As a member of the editorial board of Transatlantica, the on-line journal of the (French) American Studies Society, she is in charge of the Varia section, dedicated to American visual arts.


Photograph by Anne Crémieux

The influence of American Southern photography is far-reaching — as far as Paris. French academic Géraldine Chouard, a conference manager at the University of Paris-Dauphine, has long done research and publication on the literature and photography of 20th century America, and has long had an interest in Eudora Welty as a writer and a photographer. With the publication of her book — in French for those of you who are Francophiles, and also featuring a thoughtful selection of Welty photographs in which she features as both artist and subject – Naissance d’une vision (Paris, Michel Houdiard Editions, 2012), Géraldine offers a lively, detailed analysis of Welty’s aesthetic, the influences upon her, and her legacy. Following is one of SXSE’s most thorough exchanges, in which the author discusses her fascination with Welty’s work and the photographs she includes in her analysis.

VA: Your book is entitled Naissance d’une vision. Can you discuss why this particular title was chosen? And do you translate naissance as “birth” or “beginnings,” or is the term broader for you?

GC: The Birth of a Vision is a sort of implicit reference to The Birth of a Nation, the famous silent drama film directed by D.W. Griffith, which came out in 1915, just a few years after Welty was born (1909), and which also takes place in the South during the Civil War and Reconstruction era.

A birth, a beginning or an initiation – Welty’s relationship with photography was in perpetual (re)renewal throughout her career, a continual reactivation of her inspiration.

Welty herself said that her work as a photographer – in particular her brief job as a junior publicity agent with the WPA at the beginning of her career in the 1930s – taught her how to see. In fact, “Learning to See” is the title of one of three sections that make up her illustrated autobiography, One Writer’s Beginnings, published in 1984.

However, it is not really a case of “beginnings,” strictly speaking; she did not go through a photographer stage followed by a writer stage. It is actually more complicated – and more interesting. Even though Welty gave up on the career in photography that she so wanted – as her efforts to break into the photography scene in New York in the 1930s attest – and even though she stopped taking pictures allegedly when she lost her camera on a Metro bench in Paris in 1950 (and never allowed herself to replace it), she never lost her photographer’s soul, and she always came back to photography, in various ways, until her death in 2001.

Not only were her fictional works inspired by what she saw, but the late publication of her photographs in One Time, One Place: Mississippi in the Depression in 1971 and Photographs in 1980 – more than 40 years after they were taken – reignited her interest in photography. This is why, in 1984, she decided to illustrate One Writer’s Beginnings with pictures from her family photo album. She had gone back through her archives and discovered the emotional power of her pictures and their ability to restore meaning and affect.

As she says in her 1971 essay “One Time, One Place” (published in The Eye of the Story, 1983): “I learned from my own pictures, one by one, and had to, for I think we are the breakers of our own hearts.” But, for Welty, what breaks the heart also opens the mind and eyes and leads to reflection, which is even more important than exposure: “If exposure is essential, still more is the reflection.”

This dialogue with photography that renewed her vision over and over again throughout her career also applies to her readers who, like me, often begin with her fiction and then discover her photos. And thus begins the interaction between the two media where each exposure is an opportunity to gain more insight into the richness of her work.

VA: What is it about the American South that particularly intrigued you before and/or after your work on Welty’s photography?

GC: With its Civil War, battles, racial divide and complex relation to history and memory, the South intimidated me. But, I was also attracted to it for all these reasons, and also for its je ne sais quoi that makes it stand out from the rest of the United States.

On a side note, I grew up in the French West Indies, in Guadeloupe, and in some ways – aside from their colonial past and what this means for relationships between people – the two places had something in common, whether it was with the light, the colors or the flavors.

Photography is an excellent way to understand the complexity of the South, which can be depicted in a landscape picture just as well as in a portrait. From Welty’s photos, I discovered other Southern photographers, like Eugene Meatyard and William Eggleston, whose work shows varying degrees of a gothic influence (Meatyard) or an interest for remains of the past (Eggleston).

VA:  Have you been to the southern U.S.?

GC: Yes, of course. I had to see for myself what this part of the U.S., that I only knew through literature and photographs, looked like. I went to Mississippi for the first time in 1997. Obviously, I began with a visit to Welty’s house on 119 Pinehurst Street in Jackson, which today is a museum; the website is excellent:

Since then, I have made several other trips to different parts of the state to explore the places photographed by Welty, like Vicksburg, Rodney and the Natchez Trace with its Yazoo River. All these names made me dream, almost as much as the word “MIS-SIS-SIP-PI”, which is a true poem in itself! My goal was not necessarily to identify these places as such, but to immerse myself in what Welty calls “the sense of the place.”

Aside from Mississippi, which I visit regularly – especially the Mississippi Department of Archives and History  (MDAH ) where most of the archives on Welty are kept – I have also started exploring Georgia and Alabama, but this adventure has only just begun.

Besides photography, I am also interested in American folk arts, particularly patchwork, which is very popular in the South. Patchwork played an important role in Welty’s fiction (Delta Wedding, 1946; Losing Battles, 1970) and a lesser role in her photography.

Working in collaboration with Anne Crémieux, an Assistant Professor at the University Paris-Ouest Nanterre, I have produced two documentaries on Southern artists.

The first, Riché Richardson. Portrait of the Artist. From Montgomery to Paris (2008), highlights the work of a quilter from Alabama who has used patchwork to tell a part of her personal story through Southern icons like Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King and Josephine Baker, Toni Morrison and Barack Obama. Again, look at the website:

The second documentary, Gwendolyn Magee. Threads of History, which is a work in progress I hope to finish this year, is dedicated to a textile artist whose quilts vibrantly illustrate the most important events in African American history, often in dramatic ways. Her quilts, inspired by Bible quilts, are real narratives, or at least showing historically important scenes. Filled with grief, they visually represent episodes from the African American experience, like slavery, lynchings or the Hurricane Katrina disaster. Every piece is transformed by her creativity of shapes and colors, and designed as a forum for exchange and communication:

In other words, the South speaks to me visually!

VA: How do you feel her fiction informs her photography?

GC: For me, her oblique approach is essential and allowed her to keep her literary work separate from politics. In one essay, “Must the Novelist Crusade?” , she praises the ambiguity of fiction whose main function is not, in her view, to prove anything, but to explore a situation in order to raise people’s awareness. “There is absolutely everything in great fiction but a clear answer” (The Eye of the Story).

In many ways, this stance on literature can also be applied to her photography, especially her photos of the Great Depression, which can be reread within the context of her oblique style.

Following Emily Dickinson’s advice to “Tell all the Truth, but tell it slant,” Welty formed a slanted view of the 1930s crisis.

I’ll give you two examples of her indirectness.

One photo, “Dolls, Jackson, 1930s,” depicts two young black girls carrying identical white dolls, which gives us some idea of the ideological canons in force in the South. This is perhaps her most eloquent image on the race question.

In another picture, “Colored Entrance, Jackson, 1930s,” we can read the words “COLORED ENTRANCE” followed by “TO ALL PERFORMANCES” in smaller print. This sign is part of a brilliantly constructed scene in which a black man, photographed from behind, is seen walking towards the ticket booth reserved for African Americans. In the foreground, we catch a glimpse of the profile of two white women who are literally walking right out of the picture. These people clearly do not belong to the same world.

These images are among her most eloquent on the race question and exhibit the subtlety of her approach.

VA: Your photographic choices are fascinating – a mixture of her work and of Welty and her family. What made you decide to take that balance of work and worker?
GC: Thank you. I’m glad you like the mix. Obviously, the choice was not easy because after a while, every photo seems interesting. My goal was to show the permanent presence and almost invasive importance of photography in Welty’s life and the different facets of her relationship with the medium. I wanted to bring together her beginnings in New York and the rest of her life in the South. I wanted to show both public and private scenes, collective history and personal memories, the great classic icons of her repertoire as well as other, lesser known pictures.

Among the iconic photos that really represent Welty, there is one she called “the Woman in the Buttoned Sweater,” which was her personal reference, the one she thought about immediately after returning to her photography. In this portrait, she saw “not the Depression, not the Black, not the South, not even the perennial sorry state of the whole world,” but rather “the story of a life,” in other words, the temporality of a unique subject (The Eye of the Story).

I also wanted to include some pictures of Welty herself and, in particular, two self-portraits. The first dates back to a series she referred to as the “funny pictures.” She posed for these playful snapshots in costume, providing a welcome distraction from the day-to-day reality of the Depression. “Helena Arden, 1930s” is a prime example of this style. She combines two major cosmetics brands, “Helena Rubinstein” and “Elizabeth Arden,” to create “Helena Arden,” spelled out in Scrabble letters at the bottom of the picture. Clad in a fortune teller’s turban, Welty is pictured putting on make-up with a toothbrush. Instead of cosmetics in the foreground, we see cleaning products (detergents and wax) and canned food, including the Campbell’s soup that was so dear to Warhol, which seems to make this picture a sort of “anticipatory pastiche.”

Another, more solemn self-portrait of her shadow among the ruins of the old Windsor plantation – one of the biggest in Mississippi – shows both her discretion and intention to literally step into the contemporary Southern countryside (“Ruins of Windsor, Port Gibson, 1942”). According to Hunter Cole, when the photo was published, Welty had intended to crop the image so her shadow would not be seen, but, in the end, she was persuaded to keep it. In this new act of reclaiming an archetype, Welty changes the notions associated with it, in particular that of a past greatness, and instills new meaning.

Her family photos are another story: each displays a close link with photography, offering a reflexive approach to the medium. We can see her father proudly posing with his camera or the adolescent Welty clutching hers as if it were a treasure. There is also her ancestor Ned Andrews, an amateur photographer in the 1880s, who first photographed his wife, Eudora Carden Andrews, before posing himself for posterity. I see here a family interest in photography which was relaunched at different stages in her life.

I chose not to present the photos in chronological order to respect Welty’s idea of temporality, which is revealed, among other things, through photography, as expressed in her autobiography:

“The events in our lives happen in a sequence in time but in their significance to ourselves they find their own order, a timetable not necessarily – perhaps not possibly – chronological. The time as we know it subjectively …. is the continuous thread of revelation,” (One Writer’s Beginnings).

VA: Can you comment upon her cemetery photographs? The aesthetic and your attraction?

GC: “I always wanted to put together a book called Country Churchyards, composed of the pictures I took in cemeteries,” said Welty (Country Churchyards).

At the end of her life, Welty wished to publish the Country Churchyards album, which came out in 2000, and let it become her last will and legacy or even her elegy. This was most certainly her way of coming to terms with her own imminent death.

When she decided to publish this album at more than 80 years old, she was well aware of what she was doing. Referring to the image of the gravediggers at the end of the album, she commented in her typical humor, “I am afraid they are going to be friends of mine,” (Country Churchyards).

She was interested in cemeteries for several reasons:

It was a place where she could enjoy a stroll or even play games when she was a child living next to the city’s cemetery. She used to jump from gravestone to gravestone despite her parents’ protests.

“Mississippi had no art except in cemeteries,” (Country Churchyards).

The architectural richness of funerary monuments is indeed striking with their decorations, pillars, mausoleums, vaults, and columns topped with cherubs, crowns and bouquets. Paradoxically, final resting places were sometimes more beautiful than the dwellings of much of the population at the time these pictures were taken (1930s and ’40s).

There is no doubt that Welty was fascinated by the graphic features of tombstones, which, in a way, extend her interest in writing beyond death, as her pictures of urban signs and other forms of writing can attest.

VA: You compare her work to that of Kertész, Cartier-Bresson and Eggleston. What is it generally that you find she shares in common with these photographers?

GC: It is less what she has in common with them than the fact that, in 1974, The New York Times asked her to report on the recently published albums of André Kertész (J’aime Paris) and Henri Cartier-Bresson (About Russia), as well in fact as Leni Riefenstahl (The Last of the Nuba). Her article entitled “Africa and Paris and Russia” came out in December 1974. Later, in 1989, Eggleston asked her to write the preface for his photo album The Democratic Forest.

This can be explained by the changing status of photography. At this time, Welty’s work was becoming a cultural institution, and the nation had begun to discover the value of her photographs with the publication of One Time, One Place: Mississippi in the Depression in 1971 and Photographs in 1980.

For Welty, if Atget wanted to pursue “the spirit of the place,” Kertész wished to represent the “sentiment” emanating from a place through the people occupying it. In Kertész’s work, everybody goes about their business. His inventory of historically rich Parisian neighborhoods was a chance for him to create an anthology of the different professions he came across, such as: the milk seller wandering around the Montmartre hill with his goats; the coal peddler atop his horse, stopped on the edge of the sidewalk; or the long-aproned waiter dancing with a customer in a bistro in Montparnasse.

Welty also took numerous photos of people at work. For the men, she captured a grocer at work in his shop, a Baptist deacon on the way to his parish, and a municipal worker in a local cemetery. As for the women, she photographed a cotton picker, a weaver, a nurse in her uniform proudly standing in front of her house, or a retired midwife pretending to hand a mother her newborn child.

Photographing men and women -black or white – as professionals, was undoubtedly a way to give them a form of social status, a much needed form of recognition in the time of the Depression.

Welty did not spend much time on the famous theory of “the decisive moment” that is all too often used to summarize Cartier-Bresson’s method. Instead, she looked at the effectiveness of his compositions, which, according to the photographer, visually provided both a question and an answer. No doubt tired of answering the endless questions about his first trip to Russia, Cartier-Bresson strived to make his images as eloquent as possible. Welty noticed his “perfect economy of means” and his impeccable composition that went “straight to the point,” which she also used, as shown for example in the picture quoted above, “Dolls, Jackson, 1930s.”

When William Eggleston published his new album The Democratic Forest in 1989, his editor asked Welty, his Mississippi counterpart, to write the preface.

Welty often pointed out Eggleston’s ability to glorify humanity despite the social emptiness of his vision. “There is no one around,” she would often say, sometimes adding, “which does not mean that they deny the human factor.” It’s “exactly what they don’t do,” (The Democratic Forest). Having “learned to see,” she was sensitive to Eggleston’s way to capture a sense of space, even emptied of all human presence.

VA: Can you tell us which of her photographs are your favorites, and why?
Oh, there are so many! I’ll limit myself to three which have touched me in different ways.

GC: In her series of female portraits, the one of a blind weaver deserves to be mentioned (“Blind Weaver, Oktibbeha County, 1930s”). Seated at her loom as if it were a piano, this blind woman, who worked for the WPA, is clearly hard at work. Far from begging in the streets, like the famous blind woman photographed by Paul Strand in the streets of New York in 1916 and wearing a placard, “BLIND,” Welty’s woman is literally weaving herself into the social fabric with the work she does at home. Her stout figure is comparable to that of Strand’s blind woman, making her a descendant of the beggar in New York who ended up finding her place somewhere. This blind woman is no longer a statistic; she is a weaver, weaving her destiny with her own hands, in an age-old tradition that goes back to Penelope, whom Welty likely wanted to pay tribute to here. Rather than confronting the viewer with a natural pity, this portrait urges everyone to take an interest in this woman’s fate while pushing her disability into the background.

“Carrying ice for Sunday dinner, Near Bolton” is a very moving photograph. It shows two young boys from behind, walking barefoot along a dry country road under a blazing sun, each carrying a block of ice secured with a rope. This picture literally makes viewers melt in disbelief as they wonder what will remain of this block once the boys reach their destination. This image is all the more striking for its display of the effort people made to set aside Sunday as a special day. These brothers are carrying more than a block of ice; they are carrying a form of promise.

Another prevalent theme in Welty’s work, the fair, was the subject of a number of entertaining photos. “The Mule-faced Woman” was based on a real person, a certain Grace McDaniels, who suffered from a degenerative disease of the face. In 1935, she was hired to perform with the traveling circus. “I dreaded the real mule-faced woman,” Welty used to say, but she was interested in how she was portrayed: “I took lots of pictures of the posters because they were somebody’s dream.” And she adds: “As you can see she is wearing an evening dress and had pretty legs and was looking very coyly at somebody.” This “somebody” was none other than a mule, which we can see to her left, hidden by foliage. Its presence turns the photo into a narrative, which is how Welty always preferred it. Her other photos of signs show various circus oddities such as “Cow with a Human Face,” “Twisto Rubber Man,” and “Headless Girl,” representing in various ways the fantasy associated with the fair.

VA: Please share as well with us a brief overview of your work with the journal Transatlantica.

GC: Founded in 2001, Transatlantica is an e-journal dedicated to all aspects of American studies. I am responsible for the “Varia” section, which focuses on the visual arts, including photography, of course. For about a dozen years, numerous articles have been published on exhibitions or other events dedicated to American photography in France, Europe and elsewhere.

VA: What is Eudora Welty’s legacy in terms of her photography?

GC: Eudora Welty’s 100th birthday celebration in 2009 was a chance to take another look at her photography. In commemoration of her beginnings, the Museum of the City of New York chose to restage her first photographic exhibit shown in 1936 at the Lugene Opticians Gallery in New York. This retrospective was also shown at the Mississippi Museum of Art in her hometown of Jackson and received national press coverage. In The New York Times from January 8, 2009, Karen Rosenberg pointed to the empathy of Welty’s photos, which managed to depict the hardships facing African Americans without evoking feelings of pathos.

Following the election of Barack Obama, the first black President of the United States, the nation witnessed a renewed interest in those excluded from the American Dream. Americans seemed particularly receptive to photos depicting their odyssey. From this point of view, Welty’s images could offer a new corpus to analyze within the cultural context of desegregation.

Ultimately, Welty’s photos always fought against the perpetuating of the racial divide.

Far from a pretext for nostalgia, Welty’s purpose throughout her career was aimed at portraying life through photography. Through the stories they recount, the details they reveal and the feelings they evoke, her images go beyond a simple memory. They are a meeting place and sometimes even a source of revelations or epiphanies that seem to reassure viewers that everything is possible.

“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,” Welty declared in her usual modest way. Fully aware of the role chance plays in any person’s life, she also emphasized the gift of what she called a “human vision.” Regarding this “gift,” combining talent and grace, Welty noted: “We struggle through any pain or darkness in nothing but the hope that we may receive it, and through any term of work in the prayer to keep it,”(The Eye of the Story). With her photos, it is easy to take her word for it. All that remains is to articulate “the prayer to keep it.”

All of the photographs discussed by Géraldine are available in Naissance d’une vision. Those readers in The Durham, NC/Duke University area can see a selection of a dozen of Eudora Welty’s photographs in the Graduate Liberal Studies building.

All photos reproduced with the permission of MDAH (Mississippi Department of Archives and History).

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