Still Lives in "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" and their Possible Meanings


Term Paper, 2015

16 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Excerpt

Contents

1. Introduction

2. Vincent Van Gogh and Walker Evans Pictorial Meanings
2.1. Pictorial Meaning – Vincent van Gogh
2.2. Pictorial Meaning – Walker Evans

3. Still lives by James Agee in „Let Us Now Praise Famous Men“
3.1. The Coal-Oil Lamp
3.2. The Farm
3.3. The Clothes

4. Conclusion

5. Works Cited

1. Introduction

In 1936 Fortune Magazine asked James Agee and Walker Evans to write an article about the living conditions of farming families in the countryside of the Middle South of the United States. After it refused to print their article, they decided to compile a book out of Evans’ documentary photographs and Agee’s descriptive words in order to deliver an authentic insight into the hard-working poor life of farm workers through living with “three representative white tenant families.”1

When first looking at Walker Evans’ photographs in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men taken in times of postmodernism, the picture of a pair of boots catches the eye immediately, due to the incontrovertible similarity to a “remarkable still life painting”2 of modernist times: Vincent van Gogh’s canvas a pair of boots. As this piece of painted art inherits a pool of possible interpretations, it is worth attempting to analyze the possible meanings of it, its adaption by Walker Evans, as well as the vibrant still life descriptions given by James Agee in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.

After analyzing and comparing the variety of interpretations of Vincent van Gogh’s painting from 1887 to Walker Evans’ photographic adaption from 1938 to clarify in what way the photograph a pair of shoes is an adaption of Van Gogh’s modernist still life, a couple of chosen written still life descriptions given by James Agee will be analyzed. The goal of this analysis is to compile the variety of interpretations of certain daily used items by the farm-workers, in order to grasp the poor tenants’ families’ lives better and the intentions behind Agee’s detailed descriptions.

2. Vincent Van Gogh and Walker Evans Pictorial Meanings

After explaining the origin and intention of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, this chapter will illustrate as well as elucidate the “various interpretations”3 of Van Gogh’s modernist painting A Pair Of Boots and Walker Evans’ “documentary photography”4 A Pair Of Shoes in order to establish whether Evans’ piece of art is an adaption of Van Gogh’s painting and its possible meanings.

2.1. Pictorial Meaning – Vincent van Gogh

During 1880 and 1886 Vincent van Gogh invented “a different kind of still life”5 painting. Through diverse lighting and brushstroke techniques, he revolutionized the art of still life painting. Within that period of time he painted a couple of still lives with different objects in the foreground. One of his favored themes he painted numerous pictures on were boots, to which “no fewer than six”6 were created.

Amidst this sub-chapter we will have a look at one of his famous modernist paintings on boots created by him in 1887: A Pair of Boots. After clarifying its origin, it will be tried to grasp A Pair of Boots’ diverse interpretations.

The source of the painting lies within a flea market visit in Paris, where van Gogh bought a pair of worn-out boots. Till today, his intention behind the purchase is still unclear. Maybe he just needed a new pair of shoes or perhaps he already saw a certain potential in them. He did try wearing them, however were used as a prop instead as they were very uncomfortable. He did not know by then, that they would then become the most “celebrated shoes”7 in the history of modern art.

There are many ways the picture can be interpreted, as there is no right or wrong opinion in art, each of them is valid. Van Gogh presents us a pair of worn out boots, which could have been worn by lower class people, especially nonskilled workers or farmhands during the 19th century.

Vincent Van Gogh A Pair of Boots 1887

The dense texture and warm coloring of the painting exudes life. It appears to be based on a historical context and aims to tell a story:

“It requires us to reconstruct some initial situation out of which the finished work emerges. Unless that situation – which has vanished into the past – is somehow mentally restored, the painting will remain an inert object, a reified end product impossible to grasp as a symbolic act in its own right, as praxis and as production.”8

We need to reconstruct the painting’s background story to understand the painter’s intention of choosing this object and its possible meanings. To Frederic Jameson, this still life can be viewed in two ways:the raw materials are Van Gogh’s contempt to picture “the whole object world of agricultural misery, of stark rural poverty, and the whole rudimentary human world of backbreaking peasant toil, a world reduced to its most brutal and menaced, primitive and marginalized state.”9 This can be examined not only through the way this pair of boots have been worn-out, the owner’s poverty can also be examined by his attempt to fix the sole of the left boot with a large number of nails. Those nails do not only reflect the workers’ poverty, they also illustrate the harsh everyday working life, due to their emphasized lack of comfort.

Jameson, as well as Heidegger interprets this piece of art as “the meaningless of the body and nature and the meaning endowment of history and of the social.”10 The body is meaningless in the sense of, after a person’s death the body gets buried into the ground and slowly becomes one with the earth it is surrounded by and slowly vanishes. What stays after a human’s death though, are his material belongings. These possessions can be preserved and help future generations with the “reconstruction of the reality of a past lifeworld,”11 as well as a history and culture of a different time. And so it is with this pair of shoes: even after their primal owner has died and even after these shoes have probably been thrown away, in this painting they and their history are documented for further generations forever.

2.2. Pictorial Meaning – Walker Evans

Walker Evans’ post-modernist photo of a pair of shoes can be found in the documentary novel Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which was first published in 1941. The book itself was composed by James Agee and Walker Evans in order to unveil the real life of hard working farmers to the cities’ masses during the mid-20th century.

Walker Evans was an outstanding photographer for his times: His attempt in taking pictures was not one of a romantic, it was “more realistic, unrehearsed.”12 Sometimes, “Evans acted virtually as a voyeur to attempt”13 his photographs to look as realistic as possible. Although his photos’ protagonists in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men were posing, his goal was not to present the world in the way he would have liked it to be. He was trying to mirror the real people, the reality they were living in. Although his intentions were good, it is not allowed to be forgotten that a photographer is never able to give “a fully objective view, always a subjective one.”14 Even if a photographer is trying to reconstruct real life or a real situation, the view he is adapting, is always a subjective one: the photographer choses the setting or the protagonist he or she wants to photograph and takes the picture out of a certain angle to make it look like he or she wants it to. So even if photographers like Evans attempt to reconstruct the truth, they are always sub-consciously caught up in their subjectivity. For this, it is not possible to call a photographer or a photography objective; it would be better to call them “objective attempters.” What you could call Evans though is authentic. He is trying to set people in an authentic way to reproduce their life circumstances.

Walker Evans a pair of shoes 1938

When looking at van Gogh’s painting from 1887 and Evans’ photo from 193815, the connection between those two is incontrovertible. The way Evans set the pair of shoes is remarkably similar: the boots are in the center of the picture, with nothing around them than a muddy underground. Nothing else is presented in the picture that could take the focus away from the pair of boots. The way the shoe laces are tied in Evans’ photograph seems identical to the way van Gogh painted them.

For these observations, a pair of shoes from 1938 attempts to be an adaption of van Gogh’s a pair of boots. Characteristically for Evans’ photography, when first looking at the picture out of its context, it just seems like a simple pair of shoes. He liked taking everyday objects and putting them into a whole new context through photography. The question now is: In the context of Agee’s writing, how could this still life the photograph be interpreted?

As well as Vincent van Gogh’s a pair of boots, Evans’ photograph reflects “aesthetic value, social standing and the meaning of labor”16

The “meaning of labor”17 in context of a pair of shoes is the reflection of how hard those men on the farms had to work on a daily basis to make a living. After a hard day of work on wet dusty and muddy ground, the pair of boots was thoroughly wet. In order to let them dry, the workers left their only pair of shoes outside the shacks after a hard working day, trying to get them dry till the next morning, when they will have to go back to their physically tiring work.

The shoes also reflect the farm workers “social standing”18: Only owning one pair of old worn out boots, which needs to dry during the night in order for them to wear the following day, their low social standing and poverty are illustrated. The way the right shoe is laced, is not only a reminiscence of van Gogh’s a pair of boots, it also depicts the farmers poverty as it makes those boots appear even more old and worn out.

Although the way the boots are laced depicts the low social standing and hard labor of the farm-workers, it is exactly this little detail that also donates a certain “aesthetic value”19 to them. With the right-footed boot, the shoe tongue and laces are done up as if someone was wearing it. Whereas the left-footed boot, the tongue and laces are undone. Hence, the contrary setting of the presented boots gives them a certain beauty.

In every picture Walker Evans took of the farm, he successfully gave its items and habitants a certain “level of dignity.”20 Although the viewer feels pity for the person in the picture, he also does not feel superior over the picture’s protagonist, due to the level of beauty Evans can express. He is also managing that in this particular picture: On one hand, you can recognize the owner’s poverty and hard-working life, but on the other hand, the “aesthetic value”21 Evans is able to put into his pictures, you can also perceive their uniqueness and their beauty.

The way the left-footed boot is laced seems identical to the way they are laced in van Gogh’s painting from 1887. It was probably Evans’ intention to adapt van Gogh in such an obvious way, so the viewer would make a connection between them immediately, and for this, make the conclusion to its actual meaning more graspable. It seems like Walker Evans admired the works of van Gogh’s still lives so much that with this picture, he is not trying to reflect the farmers’ lives in an authentic way, it also seems like an homage to van Gogh and his collection of shoe still life paintings.

3. Still lives by James Agee in „Let Us Now Praise Famous Men“

Walker Evans’ still life photographs were not the only contributions in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, that give an insight of the life of farmers during the 20th century. Although James Agee is only using words, he is able to paint a very vibrant picture of the still life items used at farms. The exceedingly “detailed description”22 of the farm workers everyday items are not only touching, the way they are described by Agee also let us imagine how tough a farmer’s life must have been, and what those simple items meant to those people in the 20th century.

This chapter will deal with James Agee’s descriptions of certain still life items in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and their meaning. The picked items, which will be analyzed in the following are: A coal-oil lamp, the farm itself and the clothes worn by farm-workers. The aim of this chapter is to understand what those items meant to the farm’s habitants and the meaning Agee is trying to give to those objects.

[...]


1 Evans, Walker, and Agee, James. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: Three Tenant Families. Orlando: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2001, P. xiv

2 Babich, Babette E.. Words in Blood, Like Flowers: Philosophy and Poetry, Music and Eros in Hölderlin, Nietzsche, and Heidegger. Albaby: SUNY Press, P.212

3 Brown, Tony. Mathematics Education and Language: Interpreting Hermeneutics and Post-Structuralism. Berlin Heidelberg: Springer Science & Business Media, 2001.P.81

4 Henninger, Katherine. Ordering the Facade: Photography and Contemporary Southern Women's Writing. Chapel Hill : UNC Press Books, 2007.P.30

5 Naifeh, Steven, and Smith, Gregory White. Van Gogh: The Life. New York: Random House Publishing Group, 2011, P.461

6 Silverman, Hugh J.. Textualities: Between Hermeneutics and Deconstruction. New York: Routledge, 2013. P.139

7 Harasym, Sarah. Levinas and Lacan: The Missed Encounter. Albaby: SUNY Press, 1998, P.105

8 Fredric Jameson: Postmodernism or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press 1991, P. 7

9 Fredric Jameson: Postmodernism or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press 1991, P.7

10 Fredric Jameson: Postmodernism or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press 1991, P.7

11 Nenon, Thomas ; Blosser, Philip ; Nenon, Thomas ; Blosser, Philip: Advancing Phenomenology : Essays in Honor of Lester Embree. 1. Aufl.. Berlin Heidelberg: Springer Science & Business Media, 2010, P.20

12 Warren, Lynne. Encyclopedia of Twentieth-Century Photography, 3-Volume Set: . New York: Routledge, 2015, P.465

13 Warren, Lynne. Encyclopedia of Twentieth-Century Photography, 3-Volume Set: . New York: Routledge, 2015, P.465

14 Fowles, John. Wormholes: . New York: Random House, 2010, P.109

15 http://putthison.com/post/100773628623/beauty-truth-and-beat-up-boots-another

16 Rabinowitz, Paula. Black & White & Noir: America's Pulp Modernism. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013, P.171

17 Rabinowitz, Paula. Black & White & Noir: America's Pulp Modernism. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013, P.171

18 Rabinowitz, Paula. Black & White & Noir: America's Pulp Modernism. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013, P.171

19 Rabinowitz, Paula. Black & White & Noir: America's Pulp Modernism. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013, P.171

20 Raymond, Claire. Witnessing Sadism in Texts of the American South: Women, Specularity, and the Poetics of Subjectivity. Hampshire: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2014, P.49

21 Rabinowitz, Paula. Black & White & Noir: America's Pulp Modernism. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013, P.171

22 Becker, Howard S.. Tricks of the Trade: How to Think about Your Research While You're Doing It. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008, P.80

Excerpt out of 16 pages

Details

Title
Still Lives in "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" and their Possible Meanings
College
LMU Munich  (Department of American Literature)
Course
Literature and Photography
Grade
1,3
Author
Year
2015
Pages
16
Catalog Number
V294740
ISBN (eBook)
9783656925187
ISBN (Book)
9783656925194
File size
702 KB
Language
English
Tags
James Agee, Walker Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, photography, documentary novel, art, interpretation
Quote paper
Elaine Miriam Frank (Author), 2015, Still Lives in "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" and their Possible Meanings, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/294740

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