Text by Aaron Graybill, Copyright 2021
An Exploration: Alabama Tenant Farmer’s Wife (Allie MaeBurroughs)
This report will explore one of Walker Evans’s most famous works, Alabama Tenant Farmer’s Wife (Allie Mae Burroughs) through historical and analytical lenses to uncover why the photograph is so powerful and timeless. I will begin with a brief biographical sketch of Walker Evans and the historical context behind Allie Mae Burroughs. Next, I will discuss how the medium and presentation of the photograph affect its impression on the viewer. I will then argue that this photograph is best viewed through the lens of “detail” as defined in John Szarkowski’s The Photographer’s Eye. Finally, I will then discuss how the other four lenses in The Photographer’s Eye come together to make this photograph as significant and emotive as it is.
Walker Evans: Biographical and Historical Context
Walker Evans was able to fuse the realism and rawness of the American experience with sophisticated and thoughtful photographic techniques that let the meaning of the images shine through. Walker was born in Saint Louis in 1903 and was interested in art in multiple forms for his entire life. Eventually, Evans turned to photography and found success working with the Resettlement Administration (RA)/Farm Security Administration (FSA). But to understand the significance of this work, it is important to first discuss why a government agency hired Walker Evans to document rural American lives.
The Great Depression left rural farmers particularly vulnerable, and the Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration sought to relocate farmers to areas where they could be more productive (which helped both the farmers and the economy at large). To incentivize these moves, the Resettlement Administration and later the Farm Security Administration hired photographers like Walker Evans, Dortohea Lange, and Marion Post Walcott to highlight the opportunities that were available to those who chose to move. Whether or not Evans and others followed the wishes of the RA/FSA, is dubious, nevertheless the situations the FSA contracts provided Evans were unique and historically important giving rise to Allie Mae Burroughs and other photographs like it.
A final note about the subject of the photograph. Allie Mae Burroughs was the wife of a tenant farmer. A tenant farmer, for context, was a farmer who farmed rented land and left some of the profits for the landlord. These farmers faced the challenge of not having property to fall back on during the Great Depression, so they were targeted by the RA/FSA because they were hit harder than most during the Great Depression.
Medium and Presentation
The photograph as displayed in the Lutnick fine arts center at Haverford College is a gelatin silver print that is 9.1”x7.1”. The gelatin silver print offers the print longevity and adequate gloss to accentuate the lowlights in the print. This medium is important because the texture on the background wall and patterns in the subject’s shirt benefit from the additional pop that the glossy gelatin provides. The print is also over matted with a beveled edge on the window which subtly draws the viewer’s eye in towards the subject while the large over mat gives the viewer plenty of space to see the print in isolation. The size of the print is worth noting as well. 9.1”x7.1” is not particularly large but still leaves enough room for the background to be seen in isolation. Additionally, the size is not so large that the totality of the image is hard to view.
The final component of the medium and presentation is the quality of the print itself. The print has strong contrast without making the subject or background seem unnatural. Without access to the negative, it is hard to say how the qualities of the print were achieved. However, the print may be burned in some areas (particularly around the subject) to make the subject stand out from the wall behind her.
“The Detail” in Alabama Tenant Farmer’s Wife
In John Szarkowski’s The Photographers Eye, he acknowledges that the photographer is limited in ways that other artists are not. Photographers are restricted to represent what they see, not what they wish to see. Sometimes, the setting that the photographer finds themselves in is scattered and inconsistent. The photographer is a curator and must decide which elements of the setting are worth including in the frame and which are not. Szarkowski writes about the photographer: “From reality before him he could only choose the part that seemed relevant or consistent, and that would fill his plate” (Szarkowski 2009, 42). Working for the FSA documenting the entirety of the American experience, “the detail” is immensely important. The world that Evans documented was inconsistent and fragmented, so selecting the parts that held together made for powerful photographs.
Alabama Tenant Farmer’s Wife provides little in the way of context which is why it is well suited to be analyzed through “the detail”. The subject is dressed plainly and is photographed directly against a wooden wall. The photograph does not provide any recognizable information about where the photograph was taken geographically. Furthermore, it does not provide any information about where the photograph was taken even on a local scale. The subject’s proximity to their background makes it unclear whether or not the subject is photographed at their place of residence, work (which was likely the same for a farmer), or worship. This creates an ambiguity in the image that allows the viewer to analyze the nuances of the subject and the background without analyzing its political and social contexts. However, the ambiguity creates universality and relatability. The background could be at anyone’s house and the enigmatic expression on the subject makes the photo both universal and timeless. The Met Museum describes the subject’s expression as having the “psychological ambiguity of a Mona Lisa” ( Metropolitan Museum of Art). In addition, the subject’s hair is somewhat unkempt, which heightens the organicness and relatability of the photograph.
Another component that heightens the effect of “the detail” in this shot is the use of depth of field. Both the subject and the background are in focus which allows all of the areas of the image to be viewed in isolation. The depth of field brings out the subtleties in the texture of the wood and the subject’s clothes. The viewer’s eye is not forced to a certain in-focus area and can peruse the details of the image at its own pace.
All of these components come together to make the image an experience that is meant to be felt, not dissected and make “the detail” the dominant characteristic of this photograph.
Szarkowski’s Other Four Characteristics
Now I will more briefly discuss how the other characteristics in The Photographer’s Eye can be applied to this photograph for a richer understanding of its impact. First and foremost is “the thing itself” which Szarkowski describes as the relationship between that which is actual and seen versus that which is captured in the photograph. The photographer must filter out certain things and accept that certain potentially unwanted things might be in the frame to capture other elements. Walker Evans, as previously mentioned keeps the subject close to his background leaving little room for external distractions in the image. Yet in the image, Walker is also forced to tell only one piece of the subject’s life. The subject is expression, physique, and clothing are what we have to go on, so Walker’s selection of this print must encapsulate some meaningful component of the subject’s life.
We already discussed “the detail”, so the next topic is “the frame.” The frame of this image does not draw too much attention to itself and the way the shot is laid out seems to suggest that the wooden wall continues for many feet in all directions outside of the frame’s boundary. I believe that this has the effect of making the subject feel like a small part of the scene and the world as a whole. However, the crisp portraiture allows for the details in the subject to show while using the frame to accentuate that there is nuance even in the unseen.
Szarkowski’s fourth category is “time” which I think is quite present in this photograph, albeit not in the usual way. Usually, images evoking a sense of time use movement and blur to show evolution over time. This image takes almost the opposite approach. Even without close inspection, this feels like an image from the Great Depression. The image captures a moment in time felt by all Americans, instead of the movement of one. In many ways, the Great Depression was a period where time stood still, and this moment, frozen in time captures that feeling in an ineffable way.
Finally, Szarkowski discusses “vantage point”. Usually, this is taken quite literally, as in when a photographer takes a picture from a physical place that is outside of the usual context we view the world. Vantage point manifests itself in two ways for me in this image. First, the RA/FSA put Walker Evans into situations where he was essentially foreign and saw the world from a very different perspective to those who lived there. This gave Walker Evans a unique vantage point for each of the photographs he took, even when shooting unadorned portraiture.
The other component of vantage point that I see is even more general. Walker Evans’s body of work for the RA/FSA gave other Americans a vantage point into the diversity of experience that their country held and still holds. The modern accessibility of photography both amateur and professional understates the power that Evans’s work held when it was first released. These photographs were some people’s only contact with rural America. His work captured a fleeting moment in time still sends a powerful message even 80 years on.
Szarkowski, John, “The Photographer’s Eye,” The Museum of Modern Art, 2009
Wikipedia contributors, “Resettlement Administration,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia,
https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Resettlement_Administration&oldid=101005462 4 (accessed March 20, 2021).
Author unknown, “Walker Evans (1903–1975),” The Metropolitan Museum of Art, https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/evan/hd_evan.htm (accessed March 20, 2021).
Author unknown, “Alabama Tenant Farmer Wife,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art, https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/284685 (accessed March 20, 2021).
Wikipedia contributors, “Farm Security Administration,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia,
https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Farm_Security_Administration&oldid=10044463 12 (accessed March 20, 2021).
About The Author: Aaron Graybill is a junior enrolled at Haverford College, Haverford, Pennsylvania. Majoring in Economics.