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The Privilege of Perception

ISSUE:  Autumn 1980

James Agee had an intense regard for the camera. In his thirties, he became one of the most talented film critics of his generation; but even in 1936, on assignment with Walker Evans in Alabama, he was acutely aware of working in tandem with an artist whose ability to record history seriously threatened or qualified his own efforts. “Next to unassisted and weaponless consciousness,” he said, “[the camera is] the central instrument of our time.”

Agee devoted a significant part of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men to explaining this sentiment, beginning the text with an anecdote about helping Walker Evans take pictures when they first arrived in the South and ending with a critique of Margaret Bourke-White’s rival photography book, You Have Seen Their Faces. Most of the sorting out that goes on in these pages is personal—Agee’s reflections about photography occur in the context of his own wide-ranging anxieties about journalism—but as he discussed Evans and Bourke-White, he placed two modes of investigative photography before his readers and asked them to consider the moral and political issues behind the camera’s privileged access to poverty. “It seems to me curious,” Agee wrote, “not to say obscene and thoroughly terrifying, that it could occur to . . . an organ of journalism to pry intimately into the lives of an undefended and appallingly damaged group of human beings . . . for the purpose of parading the nakedness, disadvantage and humiliation of these lives before another group of human beings, in the name of science.” Both Bourke-White and Evans had established their early careers “in the name of science,” and both of them had turned their lenses on the poverty of the rural South, but beyond these superficial likenesses, Agee could see clear and far-reaching differences in their approaches to photography. Just as Evans stood as an exemplar of all that Agee hoped to achieve, Bourke-White represented all that he hated about investigative reporting and the New York art world.


As Agee envisioned her, Margaret Bourke-White was a flighty, self-absorbed woman. In the final pages of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, he tried to diminish her by quoting an interview from a woman’s magazine: “Margaret Bourke-White Finds/Plenty of Time to Enjoy Life/Along with her Camera Work.” He scorned her private pastimes, her concern for expensive clothing, her cagey and obviously competent career management. He was angry that she was one of the highest paid women in the country with the resources to indulge her whims. At the time Agee knew her, Bourke-White had worked for the government, for business, for his own employer, Fortune magazine, and had also just published a wellreceived and influential book on Southern sharecroppers.

The most obvious motive for Agee’s vitriol was an unfortunate publishing coincidence. As he saw it, her book, You Have Seen Their Faces, would inevitably eclipse his own treatment of the same subject. In 1937 Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Bourke-White were New York darlings; he and Evans were relatively unknown; Evans was quiet and not given to self-promotion; he was, as he knew, flamboyant and sometimes impolitic. But to dismiss Agee’s attack on BourkeWhite as jealous backbiting would be a misjudgment; for we know that he became an excellent critic of film and we know from the evidence of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men that he was already in the midst of a serious evaluation of the uses of the camera. Beyond a privately indulged grudge, Agee had quite substantial reasons for his critique of Bourke-White, and it is not an accident that he chose to criticize the woman most responsible for the convergence of photography and journalism, the woman Henry Luce had chosen as the first photographer for Fortune magazine and had chosen again as his lead photographer for Life.

Had she known about them, Bourke-White probably would have shaken off Agee’s criticisms, for she was not an unreflective woman. She believed that the camera, in anyone’s hands, had an inevitable integrity:

I believe, too, that photographs are a true interpretation. One photograph might lie, but a group of pictures can’t. I could have taken one picture of share-croppers, for example, showing them toasting their toes and playing their banjos and being pretty happy. In a group of pictures, however, you would have seen the cracks on the wall and the expressions on their faces. In the last analysis, photographs really have to tell the truth; the sum total is a true interpretation. Whatever facts a person writes have to be colored by his prejudice and bias. With a camera, the shutter opens and it closes and the only rays that come in to be registered come directly from the object in front of you.

Agee disagreed with her, for Bourke-White was noted for the “drama” of her shots, for strained angles, for obvious arrangements of items and people into satisfying compositions. To Bourke-White, these maneuvers were the staples of her trade, and her success in mastering them signaled both her professionalism and her artistry. She loved form; and at least at the beginning of her career, she regarded human life insofar as it could be abstracted and patterned in a print. This was partly because her earliest commitments were to industrial subjects and to what can be called a machine aesthetic. “Whatever art will come out of this industrial age,” she said, “will come from the subjects of industry themselves, which are sincere and unadorned in their beauty, and close to the heart of the people.” In her autobiography, she distinctly remembered the occasion when this narrow interest in industrial forms was shaken and she first realized that human beings could be an interesting subject for the lens: she had been photographing the Dust Bowl in 1934. Though her photographs from this assignment are mostly the record of soil erosion, dead crops, and abandoned houses, she must have realized the human misery this desolate land implied. In 1963 she remembered: “This was the beginning of my awareness of people in a human, sympathetic sense as subjects for the camera and photographed against a wider canvas than I had perceived before.” She learned, as she later said, that “a man is more than a figure to put into the background for scale.”

To Agee, these attitudes and photographic strategies were signs of deplorable moral ignorance. He made endless fun of them and discredited Bourke-White’s most earnest self-appraisals by juxtaposing them to her hobbies. When, for example, Bourke-White explained her trip to Soviet Russia (“A couple of years ago I began to feel that if I was worth anything at all I wanted to do something really worthwhile, something lasting”), Agee exposed her intentions by trotting out a list of her enjoyments and privileges: “She’s a tango expert; crazy about the theater, loves swimming, iceskating, skiing, and adores horseback riding. Sometimes, she explained, when she knows that the light will be right only a few hours of the day for whatever pictures she is taking, she has her horse brought around to “location” and rides until the light is right.” He assumed from the first that such frivolous femininity could produce nothing “really worthwhile [and] . . .lasting,” and he never changed his opinion.

Agee’s criticisms were cruel; they were laced with selfrighteousness, and on the personal level, his attack was tasteless. Nonetheless, it gives us a clear view of his own moral position. In picking on Bourke-White, Agee was critiquing a mode of class interaction and a set of attitudes that were much broader than Bourke-White’s personal experience. In effect, her photographs and her method of taking them provided a focus for Agee’s general anger, an indignation that preceded Bourke-White’s decision to join Erskine Caldwell in documenting Southern poverty.


From her own point of view, Bourke-White’s trip South marked a point in her life that was analogous to Dorothea Lange’s decision to leave studio photography and take her camera down into the breadlines of San Francisco. Both young women were talented and successful, and both had apparently felt the discrepancy between their own safe fortunes and those of the people left destitute by the depression. Each responded to her personal crisis by finding new, more socially relevant materials to photograph. In Bourke-White’s case, it was a matter of closing lucrative advertising accounts and dropping temporarily off the payrolls of Fortune and Life magazines. Though Agee and Evans both felt bitter about the money Bourke-White made from her book (Evans said it was “a double outrage: propaganda for one thing, and profit-making out of both propaganda and the plight of the tenant farmers. It was morally shocking to Agee and me”), financial gain had not been her motivation. In fact, her desires had been of the best, and Agee’s further criticism might have carried more weight had he distinguished between calculated rapaciousness and unwitting mistakes.

As he saw it, You Have Seen Their Faces was propaganda which was not recognized in New York because the attitudes it displayed were so widely shared. Malcolm Cowley had commented that the “quotations printed beneath the photographs are exactly right; the photographs themselves are almost beyond praise,” but Agee found the book sensational, condescending, and brutal, and he argued this both from the evidence of the photographs and from his knowledge of her working methods. He thought the book was an example of journalism’s “own complacent delusion, and its enormous power to poison the public with the same delusion, that it is telling the truth.” Bourke-White’s postscript to the book, “Notes of Photographs,” provided him with most of the ammunition he needed, for it began with a noteworthy admission: “When we first discussed plans for You Have Seen Their Faces, the first thought was of lighting.” Agee took this to be emblematic of an entire set of misplaced commitments. He felt that Bourke-White considered the photograph, the art object, to be more important than the subject in front of the camera, and he found numerous examples of her insensitive priorities.

This is the young lady who spent months of her own time in the last two years traveling the backroads of the deep South bribing, cajoling, and sometimes browbeating her way in to photograph Negroes, sharecroppers, and tenant farmers in their own environments.

He pointed out that Bourke-White worked as if she were in collusion with her middle-class viewers and that even her own words admitted a desire for effect at the expense of immediate human transactions. She had, after all, been satisfied with the photographs of a Negro minister whose colorful oratory was captured by climbing, unbidden, into his church:

I believe the only reason we were successful was because the minister had never had such a situation to meet before. Photographers walking into the middle of a sermon and shooting off flash bulbs were something he had never had to contend with.

Agee’s point was that these photographic subjects were being used, and that they were exploited in the very act that purported to help them. Had he focused his attention only on the momentary discomfort of the people in front of the camera, his reaction might be considered hypersensitive, but he saw the transaction in a much larger context, a context that seemed to elude both Bourke-White and Caldwell even though they had made their Southern journey with a definite social purpose.


They had wanted quite sincerely to alleviate suffering, and they believed that information of the sort the camera and first-person reporting could provide was essential to this endeavor. To call attention to the economic weakness of Southern agriculture and to the degradation of sharecropping was, in their eyes, tantamount to providing a solution. It was, at the least, a contribution that individuals like themselves could make. Caldwell’s text did not advocate specific programs of actions (beyond recommending further government study), but the assumption behind the effort of these two artists was clearly that decent citizens could not be passive in the face (you have seen their faces) of social wrong. Agee’s most devastating criticism was that they had “captured” the face of nothing real, that the photographs in particular had been dangerously narcissistic.

In leveling this charge, Agee could not have known Bourke-White’s memory of a lesson from this trip, for it was not published until many years later:

We went into a cabin to photograph a Negro woman. . . . She had a bureau made of a wooden box with a curtain tacked to it and lots of little homemade things. I rearranged everything. After we left, Erskine spoke to me about it. How neat her bureau had been. How she must have valued all her little possessions and how she had them tidily arranged her way, which was not my way. This was a new point of view to me. I felt I had done violence.

But he could tell from “Notes of Photographs” that Bourke-White’s procedures generally were more extended versions of this same kind of purposeful rearrangement:

Sometimes I would set up the camera in a corner of the room, sit some distance away from it with a remote control in my hand, and watch our people while Mr. Caldwell talked with them. It might be an hour before their faces or gestures gave us what we were trying to express, but the instant it occurred the scene was imprisoned on a sheet of film before they knew what had happened.

The key phrase was “their faces or gestures gave us what we were trying to express,” for it told Agee that Bourke-White had consistently photographed her own preconceptions of poverty. William Stott (Documentary Expression and Thirties America) has already expertly summarized what Bourke-White saw through her camera:


Faces of defeat, their eyes wizened with pain—or large, puzzled, dazzled, plaintive; people at their most abject: a ragged woman photographed on her rotted mattress, a palsied child, a woman with a goiter the size of a grapefruit: twisted mouths . . . eyes full of tears. . . . No dignity seems left them.

And Stott has also shown how the captions to the pictures (which were, according to Bourke-White, “intended to express the author’s own conceptions of the sentiments of the individuals portrayed . . .not . . .the actual sentiments of these people”) reinforced that biased representation by making the poor seem consistently worn, repugnant, alien, and stupid.


Behind Agee’s mockery was a growing awareness that Bourke-White was dangerous not because she was privileged and uniquely silly, but because she played into a network of rules of coherence and strategies of explanation that characterized the communications industry as a whole. To Agee, Bourke-White epitomized Time, Life, and Fortune’s policies of reporting. These in turn represented something more difficult to identify but equally important as a national attitude. The seriousness of Agee’s charge against Bourke-White derives from his association of her photographic interference with larger, more diffuse forms of social control. Through her he understood that institutions around him were involved in creating self-serving concepts of poverty and that it was their own interest in the status quo that gave them incentive to represent the poor as repugnant and alien. Those who were helped by visual information of the sort Bourke-White produced, according to Agee, were those for whom the photographs were taken, not those whose lives stood so poorly exposed.

His every effort in writing Let Us Now Praise Famous Men was to avoid unwitting participation in the indirect damage or rather the ultimate neglect and indifference of such complacent art. Although this commitment stemmed partly from Agee’s confusion of photographs with the use to which they can be put, he wanted to ensure that no one could use his text for tactical convenience. He would write something that would lend itself to no one’s reading comfort. This determination can explain both the insulting and self-conscious nastiness of the book and Agee’s refusal to advocate any form of social program for alleviating the sharecropping situation. I think that he agreed with Bourke-White and Caldwell’s belief that “seeing” had to be the prerequisite for social action. But if Bourke-White, the most highly acclaimed “seer” of her time, could not see the actual parameters of life in the rural South, then how could any viable suggestions for change derive from her work?

Because he saw the extent and possible harm of her condescension, he himself remained committed to “pure” presentation insofar as that was possible, and to self-exposure when he understood the nature of his own interference. Walker Evans knew this about his friend: “You notice that Agee is saying ad nauseum throughout the book: “For God’s sake, we must not exploit these people, and how awful it is if we are.” . . . You didn’t find that in Bourke-White anywhere. Not even awareness of the fact that she should have felt this.” Agee called his posture “the effort to perceive simply the cruel radiance of what is.” In effect, this effort was an attempt to avoid class-related preconceptions of poverty, and it involved him equally in self-forgetfulness and in self-consciousness. As he turned from Bourke-White in anger, he looked to Evans for guidance, and to the camera’s proper use as a model for his own narration.


The reasons for Agee’s intense respect for Evans are not hard to discover. He thought his friend to be unique and placed him next to Christ and Blake as one of the moral elite whose sensibilities had somehow risen above the assumptions of their own limited cultures. In a poem that prefaces the main text of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Agee called Evans a spy “moving delicately among the enemy” and summoned him to “order the facade of the listless summer.” According to Agee’s experience, Evans was undoubtedly special; but in retrospect it is clear that the roots of his work—the commitments that motivated it—were shared. In encountering Evans, Agee was unwittingly responding to and placing himself in relation to a more general cultural tendency.

Perhaps the broadest way of locating Evans among his contemporaries would be in a context of rebellion that is expressed by a dream Edward Weston had while in Mexico in the 1920’s. Weston woke from sleep repeating, “Alfred Stieglitz is dead. Alfred Stieglitz is dead”—a refrain that occasioned some painful self-reflection. “The obvious way to interpret the dream,” he finally concluded, “would be in the forecast of a radical change in my photographic viewpoint, a gradual “dying” of my present attitude, for Stieglitz has most assuredly been a symbol for an ideal in photography towards which I have worked in recent years.”

Rather naturally, Weston interpreted his dream in terms of his own situation, but he might also have spoken for a whole generation of photographers who lived in Stieglitz’s shadow and whose creative independence demanded the master’s death. To anyone who looks at the evidence of Stieglitz’s career, the variety and dynamism of his photography are obvious. But despite his Catholicism, his explorations, and his new commitment to making precise, clean photographic images toward the end of his life, he remained a symbol for one, limited “ideal in photography.” To younger photographers, including Evans and many of his peers, Stieglitz represented pictorialism, the salon world, life at one privileged remove from the ordinary; and they shaped their own sensibilities in response to him.

As a young photographer, Evans had gone to see Stieglitz, just as Weston had done before him, and had received scant attention. Weston came away from the “291” salon with a glow that was later dulled by experience and finally repudiated, but Evans disdained Stieglitz from first to last:

When I started photographing in 1929 I was working against what I considered the dishonesties of the camera in the hands of the two reigning masters of the time: Steichen and Stieglitz. I thought Steichen was too commercial and Stieglitz too arty, playing around, photographing the beautiful, calling it “God”—I thought it was nonsense. I was working from anger; I was furious at the old boy. I wanted rather violently to tell them the truth—or anybody who was used to looking at swans and reflections in a pool, the whole pictorial school, the “salon” photographers. And that was a very good stimulus, gave me some pride.

Were these animosities only the grudging responses of unacknowledged artists to those in popular favor, they would not be very important. But Weston and Evans were both articulating a widespread dissatisfaction, and their complaints, as well as their achievements, can serve as an index of a belief shared among many photographers that they should turn away from photographic manipulation and instead play a less intrusive role in setting up scenes and in achieving “special” effects through printing procedures.


Paul Strand, Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, some of the other photographers of Group f 64, Walker Evans—all of them unique in choice of subject and individual in technical matters—shared a common intolerance for the conventions of photographic idealism and a common commitment to rendering exact, unmeditated experience insofar as such transparency was possible to them. They wanted to bridge the gap between photographs taken with artistic intent and those taken for utilitarian purposes. They considered this commitment to entail a reliance on “the basic properties of the camera, lens and emulsion”; that is, they intended to avoid special effects, retouching and imitation of the other arts and instead to offer their subjects “as revealed by the natural play of light and shade . . .without disguise or attempt at interpretation.” Where the previous generation of photographers had tended to use soft focus and strong contrasts of light and shadow, Evans and his contemporaries chose to emphasize the camera’s unique capacity for impeccable resolution and rendering of detail. Paul Strand represented common sentiments when he explained that

The photographer’s problem is to see clearly the limitations and at the same time the potential qualities of his medium, for it is precisely here that honesty no less than intensity of vision is the prerequisite of a living expression. This means a real respect for the thing in front of him expressed . . .through a range of almost infinite tonal values which lie beyond the skill of the human hand. The fullest realization of this is accomplished without tricks of process or manipulation through the use of straight photographic methods.

Straight photographic methods” were certainly Evans’ goals as well. “In documentary,” he commented, “not only is actuality untouched by the recorder as much as may be, it is uninfluenced. . . . The documentary artist. . .does what he can not to change it spiritually. He tries to add nothing to it: no ideology, no polemic, no extrinsic excitement, no razzmatazz technique.”


These principles underlie and explain the by now familiar stories of Evans’ disregard for his employer, Roy Stryker, at the Farm Security Administration. The agency had a clear function: to provide photographic evidence of rural poverty and to give later evidence that various New Deal economic policies had successfully alleviated the problems originally documented. In Stryker’s eyes, photography had an unassailable social use; but in Evans’ opinion, any overt use of photographic images was a violation of both the photographer and the world he purported to represent. In consequence he repeatedly failed to bring Stryker the images of abject poverty that were required of him. This attitude can be contrasted to Dorothea Lange’s, who, as one of Evans’ most talented FSA colleagues, had no trouble with these assignments, saw no conflict between her integrity and her service to social improvement.

But Evans lived in a world where utility and integrity were antithetical values. Stieglitz had seen integrity in terms of aesthetics: to crop a picture was taboo; inadvertently to photograph something in the wrong place was a flaw in composition. But Evans, though he was masterful at seeing the formal qualities of life within the visual field of the camera, had what he called a “superior tenet.” He defined integrity in terms of what William Stott has called “fidelity to life.” To him, the claims of honest recording preceded the beauties of formal arrangement and preceded any preordained use. This is the reason he never touched or moved anything that he photographed and the reason that he expressed shock when he learned that colleagues at the FSA occasionally did. Margaret Bourke-White was, quite understandably, a shock to him. Her tampering, as much as anything Stieglitz ever did in the name of art, provided the grounds of general distrust of the medium, whereas he wanted people to rely on his photographs as honest revelations of the human condition. He saw his role as an essentially self-forgetful one; and though he knew that photographers could create the conditions they photographed and could create, by virtue of focus, distance, and camera angle, an attitude toward those items, he himself would intrude as little as humanly possible; he would act as the agent of other people’s experience, much as his mid-19th-century predecessors had, as a conduit to realities not present to his audience except through the picture itself.

Evans’ rejection of ideological motivations can be seen, paradoxically, as the key to his own political influence, and this can be asserted even though Evans regarded himself as a truculently apolitical man: “I do have a weakness for the disadvantaged,” he admitted, “but I’m suspicious of it. I have to be, because that should not be the motive for artistic or aesthetic action. If it is, your work is either sentimental or motivated toward “improving society,” let us say.” For his honesty, his insistence on disinterest as the foundation of his work was asserted against a full knowledge of the camera’s potential for misuse. His commitments preceded and were larger than any particular political perspective. His concern was to give the nation images that revealed itself to itself as it was—not as the government, the middle class, or the business world wanted it to appear. He did not think that art could alleviate suffering, but he did believe that revelation could be the prerequisite of change. He was, in a quiet, unobtrusive way, in search of foundations. By using what he thought of as a “neutral” perspective with the camera, he believed he could present those things which preceded interested points of view.

In response to these ideals, it is possible to argue that there is no such thing as a disinterested point of view. In choosing the stance that so frequently characterized his photographs— a middle distance, the camera held at eye level with no special lighting effects—Evans was making aesthetic choices that were just as noticeable as, for example, Steiglitz’ decision to hold the camera at close range: “I have put my lens a foot from the sitter’s face because I thought when talking intimately one doesn’t stand ten feet away.” Both men were using the physical distance of the photographic moment as a metaphor for psychic distance: closeness implied intimacy to Stieglitz; “medium” distance—perhaps because it avoided extremes—provided Evans with an aesthetic vocabulary for neutrality. Both choices are arbitrary assignments of meaning to position, but the subjective logic of these associations is apparent.

In Evans’ case, they represented a set of priorities that were evident to his contemporaries. His cool, understated pictures did resist sentimental use, and his uncompromising working habits must have been equally visible. He was the only photographer Agee would consider working with, and he came into Agee’s life at a time when the younger writer was already struggling with the formal problems of shaping a set of rejections into another acceptable form of narrative art.

In Agee’s evaluation of them, Bourke-White and Evans remained frozen in time and posture, each represented by the work of their early thirties. He could not have anticipated the direction of Bourke-White’s later photography nor seen the disillusionment, present at that time, that led her to devalue the machine aesthetic. Even then she was beginning to evaluate the growing disparity between the ideals of industrial capitalism and its realization in human destinies. “It is possible,” she reflected, “for hydraulic presses to rear their giant forms majestically in automobile factories, and for the workers who place and replace the metal sheets beneath the stamping block to be underpaid.” Added experience brought with it a growing sensitivity to the subjects of her prints and an increased wariness about the official uses of her photographs. By the time she was asked to cover the conditions of South African apartheid in the middle fifties, she could ask quite candidly, “What are you going to do when you disapprove thoroughly of the state of affairs you are recording? What are the ethics of a photographer in a situation like this?” and then reveal the dodges her camera permitted in the interests of the oppressed. There is an advantage, she said, “in having those little mosaics before your mind’s eye which will tell the whole story when it is complete—when each piece falls in place. The individual subjects will then add up to something you see, not what someone else wants you to see.”

Evans later work also qualified the nature of his photographic commitments. To make the pictures in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, he had stood fully exposed before his subjects and let them arrange themselves before the camera. In Many are Called, the result of a Guggenheim received in the late 1930’s, he worked with a hidden 35-mm camera and a long cable release extended down his sleeve. “The effort,” Agee was later to write of his friend, “has been to keep those who were being photographed as unaware of the camera as possible.” The subway portraits that ensued from the project are exquisite and haunting; but after granting their mastery, one must see them as part of a prolonged experiment in stealing images and thus as a concession to a human circumstance that Bourke-White seems always to have accepted—that unguarded moments tell an entirely different story from composed ones, that unwitting revelations are as important as the faces that people choose to present to the world.

Time altered the procedures of both of these photographers; but in the frame provided by the South in the 1930’s, taken out of the context of their later careers, they were able to serve Agee as symbols of antithetical approaches to the privilege of perception. Evans had shown him the political and ethical dimensions of nonselectivity. He exemplified the artist whose work was important because of its subject’s dignity, not because of the formal qualities imposed by the photographer’s shaping sensibilities. With his intense regard for the “object” in front of the lens, Evans had made art into a mode of mutual confidence that Agee found deeply admirable. Bourke-White remained anathema to him. Lacking Evans’ premeditation and self-reflection, she had unwittingly acted with the reductionist tendencies and condescension of the middle class dealing with its inferiors. He thought little of her regard for composition and still less of her unchecked belief in the importance of gathering human information for digestion into New York news. It is true that Agee’s style of selfreflection tended to be self-lacerating; but amid his questions, Evans’ photography remained of steady value to him as a guide to the honesty he wanted to achieve as a writer. Evans’influence was, he said, “the beginning . . .of somewhat new forms of, call it art if you must, of which the still and moving cameras are the strongest instruments and symbols.”


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