Nothing holds our attention like a human face. So necessary is it for us to “read” faces that our brains evolved two separate neural systems specialized to help—one to recognize whose face it is, and the other to interpret its expression. It is therefore not surprising that when Stephen Pinson, the New York Public Library’s curator of photography, set about organizing “Recollection,” an exhibition up through Jan. 2 celebrating the 30th anniversary of the library’s photography collection, he picked 95 portraits. Among them is Walker Evans’s “Lucille Burroughs, Daughter of a Cotton Sharecropper. Hale County, Alabama” (1936).
Walker Evans was assigned to document the effects of the Depression down South when he captured this photograph.
Lucille was 10 years old when Evans took her picture. He was down South because he was being paid to document the effects of the Depression by the Farm Security Administration, a New Deal agency intent on helping farmers. Several FSA photographers, most notably Dorothea Lange, were true evangels for the agency, but producing what was, after all, propaganda was constitutionally uncongenial to Evans: He did the work for the pay. And he photographed what interested him. He was in Alabama because the writer James Agee, his good friend, had gotten a commission from Fortune magazine for an article about the area to be written by him and illustrated by Evans. The collaboration eventually resulted in “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” (1941); the Burroughs family, under assumed names, are central figures in that book of classic reportage. Lucille’s pseudonym is Maggie Louise.
Evans’s portrait of Lucille is elegant in its simplicity. She is shown from the shoulders up, her face framed by a straw hat, standing against the wooden planking of one of the outbuildings of the farm the Burroughs family worked as tenants. There is nothing superfluous, and the 8-by-10 negative of Evans’s view camera captures the textures of the included elements with great specificity. The rust bleeding from the nails in the untreated wood is a clue to the family’s economic condition, but poverty is not evident elsewhere in the picture. The straw hat is a woven halo, with strong suggestions of pastoral innocence. Likewise, the neat collar of the white print dress, a dress much too nice for every day, and put on just for the picture.
But it is Lucille Burroughs’s face, the center of the image, that holds our attention. Our face-recognition apparatus sees she is young, white, of apparent Anglo-Saxon heritage, and although her features are regular, and even attractive, there is something in her face—in the picture of her face—that lets us know she was not born to wealth. More difficult than culling that sociological information is trying to suss out her expression. Her eyes are focused intently on Evans, the photographer who commands the black box with its bellows and dials and its one great all-seeing eye, a city man, a New Yorker, who came to their farm looking for what? In their book Agee notes Lucille’s “temperatureless, keen, serene and wise and pure gray eyes.” Part of our seeing her is trying to figure out what she sees, what is going on behind those eyes, greedy to understand the world.
Lucille’s freckles present no difficulties, but her mouth is another challenge. It is similar to her mother Allie Mae Burroughs’s mouth in the famous picture Evans took of her. They are both thin-lipped; but, more importantly, they both seem to be exercising the many muscles we know control the mouth to keep from revealing what they want to remain private. Lucille’s mouth neither smiles nor frowns; it is straight-line flat, in a way as emotionally neutral as the mechanical device on the tripod that she faces.
In the section of “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” about the Burroughses, Agee addresses a rhapsodic apostrophe to Lucille, going on about “the animal litheness of your country body…your clear 10-year-old mouth resolute and unquestioning of personal desire…. We have begun this looking-at-each-other of which I am later to become so conscious I am liable to trembling when I am in the same room with you. It is scary: Scary as hell, and even more mysterious than frightening…. Suddenly yet very quietly I realize a little more clearly that I am probably going to be in love with you…” Evans was not given to this sort of gushing.
A portrait is a collaborative effort, a joint venture of two wills. The amateur tells his subject to smile or “say, cheese,” and gets a picture of calculated insincerity. Walker Evans seems to have paid young Lucille Burroughs the grand courtesy of letting her determine how she would present herself to the world. Of the many portraits Evans took of the Burroughses and their extended family, Evans’s recent biographer James R. Mellow considers the portrait of Lucille the most fascinating.
Mr. Pinson says he selected the pictures for “Recollection” by going through boxes of photographs (the collection has 500,000) and picking the ones that struck him individually. He chose the Evans portrait because he thought “in and of itself it was a powerful object,” one that viewers would “take something away from.” What we take away from a portrait is affected by what we bring to it, and part of what Mr. Pinson brought to the portrait was knowledge of what happened to Lucille Burroughs subsequent to her encounter with Walker Evans.
In “And Their Children After Them: The Legacy of ‘Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,'” Dale Maharidge traces the later histories of the sharecropper families in Agee and Evans’s book. Lucille Burroughs was married when she was 15. She divorced, married again and had four children. Her husband died young. She never became a teacher or a nurse, as she once dreamed, but picked cotton and then waited tables. She was poor. In 1971, at age 45, she committed suicide by drinking rat poison. You go back to look again at the picture of the 10-year-old, to see if any of that awful story was foretold, to see if there wasn’t a way to make it come out better.
Mr. Meyers writes on photography for The Wall Street Journal.
Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702303467004575574162690573540.html