Art Through Time: A Global View
Domestic Life Art: Bud (William) Fields, Lily Rogers Fields, and Lilian Fields
Walker Evans’s photograph of Bud Fields and Lily Rogers Fields with their daughter captures the bleak living conditions of sharecroppers in the American South during the Depression era.
Lily, holding her sleeping child, sits on a simple white sheet covering a bed with a wrought-iron frame. Just inches away, the bare-chested Bud sits on a plain wooden chair. Both look directly at the camera. Neither wears shoes. Behind the pair, the door is open, revealing an older woman peeking in. The floor of the room is bare and the walls are made of undecorated wooden slats. A weathered trunk sits in the background to the right. The room is spare. Small details—the edge of a striped pillow on the bed and a sheet of paper with photos of children on the wall—lend the slightest personal touch to the space.
During the mid-1930s, Evans was one of a number of photographers hired by the Resettlement Administration (RA) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture to document the impoverishment of people living in rural America. While the RA aimed to use photography as an instrument of social and political change, Evans had his own goal—to create “pure records” of American life. In the midst of his work for the government, Evans was offered an assignment working with James Agee, a writer for Fortune magazine. Evans was to provide images for a story about the plight of the white tenant farmer. This picture of the Fields in their home was one of many photographs Evans shot featuring three sharecropper families in Hale County, Alabama.
Neither Evans’s images nor Agee’s text was actually published in Fortune. In 1941, however, the two men published their work in a book entitled Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Although they started from the shared premise that their work should avoid exploitation or dramatization of its subjects, Agee’s highly subjective prose contrasted sharply with Evan’s pictures. Refusing to stage-manage his shots, Evans wanted his photographs to be impartial descriptions of subjects that spoke for themselves and on their own terms. At the same time, he recognized that his photography involved something more than replication. Rejecting the label “documentary” for his work, he insisted that art is not the equivalent of documentation, though it might adopt a “documentary style.”
Jeff L. Rosenheim, Curator of Photography, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
“A lot of what makes an interesting or great Walker Evans photograph great is his choice of subject matter. Evans understood that some forms were inherently symbolic. He also photographed the most fragile forms of human existence. And tenant farmers’ cabins in Alabama represent The Great Depression in many ways. In terms of domestic description, it is the most essential body of photographs that we have from the twentieth century, the early part of the twentieth century.
These cabins had very little in them, but what was in them was so beautifully described by the camera. The camera’s ability to define those spaces is about trying to understand again what makes us Americans—what makes our spaces, domestic or otherwise, an American space. We are able to see what life was really like. Not the life that Roosevelt said it would be or what it should be. And not the life that the politicians and the bureaucrats said it should be. Not the life that the union was trying to propose it should be, but as it was. I think Evans thought with his camera that by revealing things as they are we would be able to learn something and maybe make change.”
Agee, James, and Walker Evans. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: The American Classic, in Words and Photographs, of Three Tenant Families in the Deep South. Boston: Mariner Books, 2001.
Brannan, Beverly, and Gilles Mora. FSA: The American Vision. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2006.
Cohen, Stu, et al. The Likes of Us: Photography and the Farm Security Administration. Boston: David R. Godine, 2008.
Department of Photographs. “Walker Evans (1903–1975).” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Web site. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/evan/hd_evan.htm (October 2004).
Hambourg, Maria Morris, Jeff L. Rosenheim, Douglas Eklund, and Mia Fineman. Walker Evans. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004.
Mora, Gilles, and John T. Hill. Walker Evans: The Hungry Eye. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2004.
Szarkowski, John, Lee Friedlander, Walker Evans, and William Klein. The Photographer’s Eye. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2007.