Wednesday, June 3, 2015

VISUAL STORYTELLING

Yesterday, after morning services at St. Mary's Convent, Sewanee, Tennessee, we decided, on impulse, to visit the Hunter Museum in Chattanooga, which is an hour's drive from Sewanee. When morning temps in early June average 60 degrees, travel is pleasant, and temps were still mild at noon when we arrived and took a table at the Rembrandt Cafe. Fearless sparrows and grackles were busy on the patio, daring to land underfoot to pick up the crumbs of early lunchers. The cafe's specialty is a tomato-artichoke soup and fresh bread from a bakery located on the block beneath the cafe area, so we dined well, sitting near a large fountain that provided an added attraction for the brown sparrows at my elbow.

The Hunter Museum, across the street from The Rembrandt Cafe at Bluff View, was only steps away, and we renewed a lapsed membership before viewing the exhibit that had attracted my interest: Eudora Welty and the Segregated South, a gallery of photographs by one of my favorite southern writers. The photographs were billed as explorations on both sides of the color line in the "Jim Crow South" of her native Mississippi and were on loan from the Knoxville Museum of Art. I wasn't allowed to photograph the exhibit, but the running texts documenting Welty's experience in a segregated South provided material for some memorable storytelling.

By Jay from Birmingham, AL 
(http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0), 
via Wikimedia Commons
During the 1930's Welty worked with the WPA (Works Progress Administration) conducting interviews in her home area near Jackson, Mississippi. Welty's keen powers of observation and what is described as "sly humor" delineate the color differences in arresting photographs about the effects of Jim Crow laws on Mississippi's majority African American population during this time in the deep South.

One gelatin silver print, dated 1935, that Welty snapped is entitled "Saturday Strollers," a photograph of three southern African American women dressed in chic gowns, high heeled shoes, and stylish hats, strolling on their afternoon off. Their stroll is impacted by a farmer dressed in worn-out overalls leaning against a storefront, as Welty catches the woman in the left side of the photograph stepping behind her companions so that she can create a space on the sidewalk between herself and the white farmer. She is carrying out the Jim Crow rule of "giving whites the wall." The text accompanying this photograph explains that Welty has cropped the photograph to emphasize the farmer's posture, and he is described as "casting a shadow over the women's leisurely stroll."

As my great-grandmother Dora Runnels Greenlaw lived in Copiah County, Mississippi during the early 20th century, I was drawn to a photograph shot in that area entitled "Tomato Packers' Recess, Copiah County." The print showed migrant workers, who were often displaced sharecroppers, gathered around a central guitarist, looking as though they needed the music as a respite from harvesting seasonal crops. The men's bent legs are described as a "rhythmic pattern...creating a sense of unity and uplift."

One of the most arresting photographs in the exhibit, "Preacher and Leaders of the Holiness Church," shows a picture of worshippers at the Church of God in Christ Holiness Church. In this picture Welty shows the spiritual aspects of the church by capturing the sunlight glowing in the window of the church and the incandescent light that illuminates the glowing faces of the women who are known as "Sanctifieds." This photograph appeared in an article in Vogue magazine, and Welty's text included inappropriate remarks that reflect the prejudices of the time as she described the appearance and behavior of the preacher: "The preacher shown here at top, was a little man, jet black, with monkey features and antics."

A stark photograph shows African American workers going home before sundown to avoid the "sundowner laws" that forced these workers, who were employed in town, to go home before dark or risk being arrested, sometimes lynched. Welty shows a long road in the foreground leading to the cart carrying the workers, and the photograph frames a barren landscape with only one tree showing in the distance.

A print of a houseboat family on the Pearl River that brought back memories of fishing trips I once took on this river, a haunting photograph of an abandoned lunatic asylum, and Welty's famous photograph of a bottle tree in a barren-looking yard—these were among the stories Welty told in this visual narrative of the segregated South.


I returned to Sewanee with a copy of Art View, the Hunter Museum's quarterly magazine underarm and opened it to a page that featured a cutline by the photo editor Kathy Ryan: "Often the best creative work happens when there is a crossover between different disciplines." An apt phrase to describe a Pulitzer Prize winning writer like Eudora Welty, who was not only one of the South's premier authors, she was recognized as an accomplished photographer. 
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