Southern Cultures 10.3 (2004) 31-51
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Shellburne Thurber's Southern Home
In the summer of 1936, when Walker Evans traveled with James Agee to Hale County, Alabama, to document the daily lives of tenant cotton farmers for Fortune, he established in the mind of America a lasting image of the South. Though the essay never appeared in the magazine, which found Agee's writing "pessimistic, unconstructive, indignant, lyrical, and always personal," the photographs were included in Walker Evans: American Photographs, published in 1938 by the Museum of Modern Art in conjunction with its first one-photographer retrospective.1 They also were reissued in 1941 with Agee's text as Let Us Now Praise Famous Men but belonged to Evans's employer, the Farm Security Administration ( FSA), as a condition of his leave, and thus passed into the public domain.
If Evans's portraits of the Alabama sharecroppers and their families stand with Dorothea Lange's "Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California" as icons of the Depression, his interiors of their houses, those of the West Virginia coal miners he photographed the year before, and his shots of the empty Belle Grove plantation house outside New Orleans stand as icons of place. In its elegance and decline Belle Grove was the irretrievable southern past, but Hale County was its present, a present that generations of Evans's lesser imitators have prolonged as they roam the back roads of the South in search of the ramshackle, the overgrown, and the falling-down that have become the staples of southern cliché. Evans, an aristocratic midwesterner who spent his adult life in the Northeast, was a collector who saw his photographs as artifacts, not expressions of himself but records of other. "Detachment is my professional equipment," he boasted, and he developed a straightforward, unpretentious style that laid the facts before the viewer. Despite the fame of the portraits he made for the FSA, he was primarily a photographer of environments, and his fondness for interiors—"I do like to suggest people sometimes by their absence," he told interviewer Paul Cummings—was realized most successfully in the houses of the poor, largely "because the pieces of the anatomy of someone's life were more easily captured there in a single frame."2 Not many of the subsequent self-consciously southern and interchangeable [End Page 31] documentarians who look for the picturesque in rural blight venture inside. Theirs is so much a record of difference that they make poverty look like a tourist attraction, something you can see from your car. Their images offer neither the personal view of Agee nor the supposedly objective eye of Evans. Instead of revealing, they confirm. This is what the South is supposed to look like.
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|Shellburne Thurber's pictures are "photographs of experience . . . ordered and clarified." "Chesson House: Abandoned bed with dark window," chromogenic print, copyright 1998, courtesy of Shellburne Thurber.|
On the surface it might appear as if "Home," Boston-based artist Shellburne Thurber's series of large-scale color photographs of the interiors of vacant and neglected houses in North Carolina, follows in the tradition of documenting the shabby or abandoned that Evans unwittingly established for the South. One difference is Thurber's use of color, whereas much of the formal beauty of Evans's Depression compositions derives from the power of black and white. The contrast is startling, for Thurber's images are not merely in color; they radiate with it, so saturated that their light and color seem to glow from within. John Szarkowski, the influential director of the Museum of Modern Art's department of photography from the late 1960s to 1991, once divided the failure of color work into two categories: the failure of formlessness, in which color is extraneous, and the failure of prettiness, in which color is the subject, often, he complained, on the...