There’s a fantastic photo book published in 1993 featuring the work of Eudora Welty – mostly known for her fiction. (Her first published short story was “Death of a Traveling Salesman” in 1936.) Eudora Welty Photographs shows how she documented life in the South during the Great Depression.
The introduction of the book features an interview with Welty in her home in Jackson, Miss., in 1989 and serves as a retrospect of her career. There are some interesting insights when it comes to storytelling and photography:
Welty was a self-described “shy” person who took “daring” photographs. When asked what the circumstances surrounded the images she captured and published in her book One Time, One Place, she said: “I was never questioned, or avoided. There was no self-consciousness on either side. I just spoke to persons on the street and said, ‘Do you mind if I take this picture?’ And they didn’t care. There was no sense of violation of anything on either side. I don’t think it existed; I know it didn’t in my attitude, or in theirs. All of that unself-consciousness is gone now. There is no such relationship between a photographer and a subject possible any longer.”
When asked why, she explained, “Everybody is just so media-conscious. Maybe it’s television. Everybody thinks of pictures as publicity or – I don’t know. I wouldn’t be interested in doing such a book today, even if it were possible. Because it would assume a different motive and produce a different effect.”
(Keep in mind her comments were in 1989 – and sound like they could have been spoken today.)
Welty said she never posed people or imposed upon them with her photographs. She took a handful of shots and went on her way. “My pictures were made in sympathy, not exploitation. If I had felt that way, I would not have taken the pictures.”
Many of her subjects had never had a picture taken of themselves, and had never owned one. This is what she said about those: “They had so little, an a photograph meant something. And they really were delighted. It didn’t matter that it showed them in their patched, torn clothes. They wanted the picture. They were delighted at the evidence of themselves here – a picture was something they could hold.” (emphasis added)
Welty said her images constituted a statement of reality. “It wasn’t needed for me to say, ‘Look what a bad thing.’ Or, ‘Look how these people are facing it, facing up to it, meeting it, hoping as well as enduring it.’”
The photos spoke for themselves.
“I wasn’t trying to say anything about myself in the pictures of people. I was trying to say everything about them, and my taking them was the medium. The photographs are saying what I saw. I was just the instrument, whatever you want to call it.”
Click here to see a slideshow of Welty’s photographs from The New York Times.