This summer, the Birmingham Public Library (BPL) will host “Eudora Welty: Exposures and Reflections,” an exhibit that explores the connections between the written works of one of the Deep South’s most renowned 20th-century literary figures and her earlier, relatively overshadowed, photographic portfolio.
“Exposures and Reflections” was developed by the History Museum of Mobile in partnership with the Southern Literary Trail and funded by the Alabama Humanities Foundation. Since its first showing two years ago, the exhibit has traveled across Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi.The exhibit opens at BPL on June 5.
While Welty dismissed the idea of connections between her writing and photography — she referred to them as “parallel activities” — both bodies of work reveal the same creative eye.
Framed by an upbringing and experiences that fueled a strong storyteller’s voice, her works have become synonymous with Southern life-ways independent of each other. Together, Welty’s photographs and stories provide a more striking record of the Depression-era South.
Welty (1909-2001) first gained national acclaim in 1936 for her short story Death of a Traveling Salesman. Before these accolades, she traveled through Mississippi and neighboring states as a junior publicity agent for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) during America’s Great Depression.
With camera in hand, Welty documented these assigned destinations and their inhabitants in her own time, often offering a copy of her photographs to her subjects. As she explained in a 1989 interview, “They had so little, and 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 evidence of themselves here. A picture was something they could hold.”
An exhibition of her work in New York City, later known as the Lugene Collection, was quickly eclipsed, almost forgotten, once she was in the literary spotlight. In the years that followed, other novels and short stories flowed from Welty’s pen, establishing her has one of the South’s great literary voices. Welty’s inclusion in the educational curriculum in the years since has focused primarily on her writing.
The premise of “Exposures and Reflections” is simple: Combine the bodies of Welty’s work in such a way as to establish pronounced similarities between the written words and the photographic images. Gaining permission to pursue the concept proved less simple.
Many of those people whose mission since Welty’s death has been to protect her legacy, including her friends and acquaintances, initially adopted a conservative stance concerning the proposal. Citing Welty’s dismissal of the notion that the photographic works may have influenced her later writing, their rebuttal centered on the idea that none of the examples provided were absolute, meaning that many of the images could be paired with a variety of excerpts and fit just as seamlessly.
When members from all the organizations involved met for a face-to-face meeting at Welty’s home in Jackson, Miss., the more time-honored stance toward the author and her works was set aside. Welty Foundation LLC, which holds the rights to Welty’s written works, and the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, which owns the copyright to her photographs, agreed that the design proposal could work, as long as the idea about “parallel activities” was conveyed once the exhibit opened to the public.
The title of the exhibit became extremely important in evoking the show’s overall themes. Using a phrase from the forward to One Time, One Place, a book of Welty’s Depression-era photos, the title cites Welty’s phrase,“If exposure is essential, still more so is the reflection.” Elegant and simple, this quotation captures the essence of the exhibit and points to the interplay between the exhibit’s components and the public’s reaction, given the modern economic recession in which we find ourselves.
“Eudora Welty: Exposures and Reflections” is not only a timely and thought-provoking exhibit, it is an essential step in the writer’s biography. Eventually, people must be able to dissect and explore the influences, meanings and reasons behind any body of work, “connecting the dots” between works and their creator. Without such scholarly pursuit, an author may fade into obscurity or disappear forever.
In the years since her passing, Welty has been honored by the stalwart efforts of her closest friends and adoring fans, reserving a place in our literary tradition for her unique vision. Now, however, her entire body of work can become part of a new generation, whose struggles to understand their own economic troubles may provide further insights into the life and works of this Southern icon.
Southern Literary Trailis the curator of exhibits for the History Museum of Mobile and the lead designer of the exhibit, “Eudora Welty: Exposures and Reflections.” Laurence will speak at the Birmingham Public Library downtown on June 6 at noon, in a presentation that coincides with the exhibit. The exhibit will run from June 5 to July 20 in the library’s Fourth Floor Gallery. For more information, go to www.bplonlineorg.