The Revelation of the Instant: Eudora Welty's Photography
by Katherine Pannill Center
Editor’s Note: Eudora Welty was born on April 13, 1909, in Jackson, Mississippi, and died July 23, 2001.
Before Eudora Welty became the writer that she did, she was a photographer. Maybe taking pictures enabled here to become the writer she was, or maybe the same gentle wisdom that fueled her writing enabled her to take the photographs she did. One thing is clear: she could see things like no one else could.
Educated first at home in Mississippi, and then in Wisconsin and New York, Welty returned home after college when her father was dying of leukemia. It was 1933, and the Depression was in full swing. After her father's death. Welty looked for a way to support herself and soon found full-time work with Mississippi's Works Progress Administration office as a junior publicity agent.
At the WPA, her job was writing and publicizing projects around the state with articles for weekly county papers. She traveled constantly, visiting all 82 of Mississippi’s counties, and soon she was bringing a camera along to document her deepening vision of her home state. "I look the pictures because I wanted to," she said in an interview, "Just impulse. I was not trained and bad no good camera."
Welty had watched her father, who loved machines of all sorts, document family occasions with his Eastman camera. Her parents used to print family photos in the kitchen late at night. Welty herself began taking pictures in 1929, using a popular Kodak camera much like a Brownie that used 116 mm film. She, too, then printed in the kitchen at night using a second-hand enlarger from the State Highway Department. It had a single shutter opening, and she timed exposures by trial and error.
Though she was not their official photographer, the WPA used some of Welty's photographs in their publications. In 1935, she also had a photo printed in Eyes onthe World: A Photographic Record of History-in-ihe-Making. The book also published photographs by Margaret Bourke-While, Charles F. Jacobs and Ansel Adams.
“There is little doubt that the photos she took during that period comprised a crucial part of Welty's artistic education. She credited her time at the WPA for a new kind of wisdom. "You know." she once said, "I had been so sophisticated in New York, and I didn't know a thing. Ididn't know what people were really like." In the introduction to a book of her photographs from that time, Welty writes:"I learned quickly enough when to click the shutter, but what I was becoming aware of more slowly was a story-writer’s truth: the thing to wait on, to reach there in time for, is the moment in which people reveal themselves."
In later years. Welty would say that she "didn't have any talent" for photography, and that her pictures were "strictly amateurish," but there was a period when she considered working as a professional photographer.
She tried fashion photography for a while and also applied for a job shooting for the Historical Section for the Resettlement Administration, which had employed both Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange. (Later, Welty saw the work Evans had done there and disliked it: "He posed people to tell what their situation was. I shot what I saw.") She was not hired.
She also tried doggedly to publish and show her photographs. She was unsuccessful with publishers but did manage to get a show at Lugene Optics in New York in 1936. She pitched the photographs as "three hundred unposed studies of Mississippi Negroes." The show pitched the photographs to its patrons as "an example of what can be done with the crudest of materials by the most ignorant of photographers," which Welty later said was perfectly true.
That same year, her job at the WPA ended, and she published her first short story, Death of a Travelling Salesman, in Manuscript, a literary journal. She also bought a Rolleiflex that year that she used until 1950, when she accidentally left it on a subway bench in Paris. Mad at her own carelessness, she never bought another one.
She had another show at Lugene's in 1937 and also managed to sell six photos to LIFE Magazine, but as her literary work gained acceptance, her photography settled into a hobby.
Welty maintained that she had only ever wanted to write, though she confessed that her writing was intensely visual: "The only talent I have — for writing, I was blessed with it — is quite visual. And anything I imagine in what I read or write, I see it." In another interview, she granted that her "snapshots" may have had some value as records of history but said, "I am a professional writer. That is my life and my work and I take it very seriously."
Still, her style of writing was often described as "photographic," and she did not deny the connections between the two. "It's true that what I'm interested in is the revelation of the instant. Like the flash of a camera, the record of a movement or an emotion is what fiction is, really."
Welty's writing career, of course, was brilliant. She garnered just about every literary award or honor in existence — most notably the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1973. She published five novels, four collections of short stories and two books of non-fiction during a career that spanned much of the 2oth century. But her photographs continue to draw their own attention. Between 1971 and 1995, six different books of Welty's photographs were published.
Often asked about the relationship between her photography and her fiction, Welty was clear about the differences between them. "Writing has everything to do with interior feelings and apprehensions," she said. "Photographs are exterior, capturing the look of things, the quality of light at a certain time of day."
Perhaps she did not see in her own "snapshots" what others see so plainly: the same open sympathy that graces her fiction, the same tender understanding for the human condition, the same clear-eyed reading of the stories within.
katherine pannill center is a freelance writer in houston and teaches with writers in the schools. she has a ba from vassar college and an ma in fiction from the university of houston's creative writing program.