Date of Degree
PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)
In Praise of Peasants focuses on two sets of collaborators whose photo-textual depictions of the rural poor have been widely hailed on either side of the Atlantic but rarely discussed together. The British writer John Berger has acknowledged that the key inspiration for his projects with Swiss photographer Jean Mohr was Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941/1960) by James Agee and Walker Evans. As in that encomium to Alabama tenant farmers, Berger and Mohr straddle a line between social documentation and artistic expression in their own unclassifiable books: A Fortunate Man (1967), about a doctor's relationship with his patients in an English forest; A Seventh Man (1975), about the experience of migrant workers across Europe; and Another Way of Telling (1982), about the lives of Alpine peasants. All four of these cooperative endeavors brim with unresolved conflicts between ethics and esthetics, as well as authorial ambivalences toward rusticity and poverty. Manifold affinities in the two creative partnerships demand a transatlantic assessment that might view Agee and Evans as "unpaid agitators" for other artists and witnesses beyond an American ambit.
From among the many sensitive portrayals, including Berger's Into Their Labours trilogy, that constitute a rich literature of rural poverty, these collaborative enterprises are set apart not only by their interdisciplinary nature and fierce solidarities but by the equal weight they accord to images and words. Both pairs of authors develop innovative means for conjoining photography and writing. Both worry over the effects of their pictures and text on their subjects in addition to pondering how their distinct yet coordinated mediums might affect their viewers and readers. The enduring relevance of their representational techniques and motifs emerges from a productive dialectic between witness and artistry. Agee, Evans, Berger, and Mohr ingeniously explore how an ethical responsibility to bear witness for the exploited without inflicting further exploitation is enhanced or subverted by an esthetic impulse to translate, verbally and visually, such marginalized lives into art. Their multifaceted ways of seeing the rural poor ultimately engender a means of praising their protagonists, transforming moments of witness into monuments of artistry.
Following a comparative analysis of these authors' attitudes, consistencies, and contradictions over the span of their careers, I offer chapters on their likeminded works. "Abashed Ambition" scrutinizes the contest deliberately staged between intentions and performance in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men , while "A Continuous Center" examines how Agee's effusive text and Evans's austere photographs suspend instead of synthesize a pivotal tension between centripetal and centrifugal forces. "A Sense of Measure" looks at why Berger and Mohr increasingly empathize with the rural poor, and how their three ventures generate "imaginative documentaries" or "narrative dialogues" between images and words. My epilogue knits together Agee, Evans, Berger, and Mohr by concentrating on a handful of their creative peers or heirs who have been inspired or agitated by their collaborations and whose own books similarly probe the ethical jeopardies and esthetic challenges of representing rural life or poverty through both prose and pictures.
esthetics, ethics, photography, poverty, rural, writing
Includes bibliographical references (pages 411-425).
Copyright 2013 Andrew Crooke