Agee and Evans capture my heart through imaginative take on subjects
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is a photo-journalism book that shirks its own definition. Though it uses both words and pictures, as was the precedent set by books like "You Have Seen Their Faces," there is something distinctly different at play. Where "You Have Seen Their Faces" had no problem showing off the people of the suffering South as pitiful and grotesque, there seems to be, in this piece, an overarching awareness and condemnation of a journalist's proclivity to exploit those will less privilege for the sake of selling news or book copies. In fact, they go so far as to call their own instruments an enabler to that, wishing words weren't needed to tell this story, and calling the camera "a weapon, a stealer of images and souls, a gun, an evil eye." As such, they seem to constantly be erring on the side of human dignity. Dealing with poverty and pity at a distance, concealing facts while revealing state of mind in an innovative way.
This, I believe, is achieved through the more complicated is the use of non-journalistic text, starting from the first page. The book's very preface is sprinkled with quotes from texts, character breakdowns (as in a play), notes on the author, ideas on journalistic intent, and other bits and pieces rolled into one (as well as narrative text and photos). It's layout is screwy. This establishes the text as transcendent from the constraints of regular journalism, allowing us a deeper look into the world of these people without mis-quoting or starkly mis-representing. It also allows them to keep their dignity intact, because the authors are showing off their lack of refinement through colloquial speech, which often undermines the intelligence of the subject, nor providing us with anything that strips these men and women of their dignity. Instead, it seems to be capturing these people by circling around them (I suppose, much like a photographer circles around its subject).
It kind of reminds me of a bio-pic of Bob Dylan that came out a couple of years ago, called I'm Not There
, which tells Dylan's story through use of a lot of semi-fictitious vignettes that give you an idea not of the straight biography of the man, but of his essence. It seems to me that an effective way to tell that story, as well as this one, was to approach it from multiple angles and mediums (photography, journalism, quotations). This way, you get the color of the piece, and can fill in the unimportant details with your imagination.
The photos only compliment this. Instead of the strange mix-match captions of the Bourke-White piece, these ones stand alone, showing off the faces of nameless people as they go about life, in a way that seems free from martyrdom and judgement. You don't know what happened before this moment, nor after it, but you get a beautiful sense of the human being standing there right before you, as if you, the photographer, and the subject all know that you are looking at one moment captured in time and now shared.
I was really captured by the "If I could do it, I'd do no writing at all here. It would be photographs; the rest would be fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, lumps of Earth, records of speech, pieces of wood and iron, phials of odors, plates of food and excrement." I think this really points to the idea that the best stories are told by taking you in not through statistics or harsh, black and white words, but through details and nuances, which can reveal everything about a life, no matter how different from one's own. I think Agee and Evans succeeded so much in this piece because they really understand and take this idea to heart. They show us that not all books need writing to tell a complete story. And in doing so, they captured more of human dignity, and more of my own imagination, than they ever could have otherwise.