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The Story of a Photograph: Walker Evans, Ellie Mae Burroughs, and the Great Depression (Kindle Singles) by [Thompson, Jerry L.]
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The Story of a Photograph: Walker Evans, Ellie Mae Burroughs, and the Great Depression (Kindle Singles) Kindle Edition

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Walker Evans’s iconic photograph of Ellie Mae Burroughs of Hale County, Alabama, made while he was working with James Agee, has become a memorable symbol of the Great Depression. How it came to be, and what consequences it provoked, make for a fascinating tale.


Although the Great Depression brought suffering to the cities in equal measure, the images of rural poverty and despair remain the more searing memories of the worst economic collapse in American history. This is largely due to the small band of photographers who recorded the miseries of the poor, under the auspices of the New Deal’s Farm Security Administration. Notable among them were Margaret Bourke-White, Dorothea Lange, Arthur Rothstein, and Walker Evans. The story that Jerry Thompson tells here is of Evans’s iconic photograph of Ellie Mae Burroughs of Hale County, Alabama. Evans made it while working with James Agee on assignment from Fortune magazine. It is not only a great picture technically but has become a memorable symbol of difficult times.


Jerry L. Thompson is a working photographer who occasionally writes about photography. During the last three years of Walker Evans’s life he was Evans’s principal assistant and, for a time, printer of photographs. He lived with Evans off and on from late 1972 until Evans’s death in April 1975. From 1973 until 1980 he was a member of the faculty of Yale University. Thompson has also written The Last Years of Walker Evans; a book of essays, Truth and Photography; and the introduction to Walker Evans at Work. He lives in Amenia, New York.

Product Details

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 1039 KB
  • Print Length: 51 pages
  • Publisher: Now and Then Reader (May 16 2012)
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services LLC
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B00846931Y
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
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  • Enhanced Typesetting: Enabled
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  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #259,450 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 3.8 out of 5 stars 26 reviews
42 of 43 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The fascinating story behind the photograph May 24 2012
By J. Chambers - Published on
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
We've all seen the photographs of Depression-era people and families in this country. Author Jerry L. Thompson takes us behind the scenes of one well-known photograph and examines the lives of both the photographer and his subject. Walker Evans was a talented photographer who was just starting out in his chosen profession when he hooked up with writer James Rufus Agee, and the two of them headed for the American South on a project for Fortune Magazine. In 1936, while on this assignment, Evans' photographed Ellie Mae Burroughs, the young wife of a tenant farmer in Hale County, Alabama. This haunting photograph would in time become a symbol of poverty and human tenacity during the Great Depression.

The author covered the lives of Evans and Agee and the impact that their work for Fortune magazine would have, even long after all the principals involved had passed on. As an avid amateur photographer, I was extremely impressed to read how Evans worked with both a large-format view camera and a smaller Leica. His most serious work - portraits - was done with the view camera, which required a lot of skill and patience. The use of flash bulbs for fill-in flash was just coming into play in the early 1930s, and was a hit-or-miss proposition with the comparatively crude equipment of the day. Coupled with the vagaries of the equipment of that era was the fact that Evans' darkroom was a thousand miles away, which meant that he was "shooting in the dark," so to speak.

I was also impressed to learn that Evans and Agee didn't just pop in and ask to take a quick series of photos, then leave to find other subjects. In some cases, as with the Burroughs family, they actually moved into their home and got to know the family, even participating in their daily life.

Several decades later, Evans and Agee and others who did similar work during the Great Depression came under criticism for "parading the nakedness, disadvantage and humiliation of those lives" in the name of journalism and for money. It was interesting to read of various comments and defenses of their work over the years.

Overall, "The Story of a Photograph" was a fascinating tale of a famous photograph and the people behind it.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Allie Mae Burroughs: The story behind Walker Evans' quintessential image July 30 2012
By John Williamson - Published on
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
As one who has long admired the FSA photos that make up a record of a key portion of our American heritage, it was good to find author and photographer Jerry L. Thompson's The Story of a Photograph: Walker Evans, Ellie Mae Burroughs, and the Great Depression offered here as a Kindle edition.

The author, who worked as his principal assistant during the last years of Walker Evans's life, takes us from the early years of Evans' life to his death in April 1975. I've always identified this iconic photo, usually known by its title "Alabama Tenant Farmer Wife" with the name Allie Mae Burroughs, but Jerry Thompson's explanation in this book clarifies that difference quite well:

"Evans's best pictures are fact and symbol at the same time. One of these best pictures--and certainly one of his best known--is the close portrait of Ellie Mae Burroughs. (She's sometimes called Allie Mae Burroughs, and in Evans's 1941 collaboration with the writer James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, she is given the name Annie Mae Gudger)."

We find that in his early years as a creative talent who began by wanting to write, Evans was gratified to read that his works dealt effectively in metaphor, and was particularly pleased to find this comment "not in the pages of U.S. Camera or Popular Photography but in a magazine of general (and rather high-toned) cultural appeal."

Walker Evans began to take photos in the late 1920s, and as early as 1929 was trying to establish himself as an artistic photographer. He had taken snapshots during a European trip, and upon his return to New York, he published his first images in 1930. He showed his images in 1931 at the John Becker Gallery, and in 1933 at the then new Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).

During the Great Depression, Evans began to photograph for the Resettlement Administration, later known as the Farm Security Administration (FSA), documenting workers and architecture in the Southeastern states. In 1936 he traveled with writer James Agee to Hale County, Alabama, and he and Agee lived on and off in the four-room cabin of Floyd and Allie Mae Burroughs for several weeks in August 1936. The family owned nothing. Everything in their lives was leased from their landlord, as Burroughs was a cotton `sharecropper' and as such he had to give his landlord half his cotton and corn crop, and then pay off any other debts incurred during the year for their seed, fertilizer, food and medicine. By the end of 1935, the family finished the year $12 in debt.

But it's that photo of Allie Mae Burroughs that has become one of the most iconic images representing the Great Depression. In 1936 she was was a twenty-seven-year-old mother, homemaker, and farmer, living with her husband Floyd and four children in a small house not far from where her father lived with his younger wife and second family. Floyd had work in a sawmill, which he enjoyed, but Allie Mae felt that farm life would allow the family to have more food, including milk and butter. For those who have had the opportunity to see the images of this woman of 27 up close, we see her furrowed brow, the early and premature wrinkles around her eyes, and her eyes themselves, framed against the bare wood siding of her home. Her eyes show that she deeply aware of Walker Evans' camera and his presence, but she could have never understand the significances of the photos being taken and the social reform they would help to accomplish. This from the author stands out:

"Evans died in 1975. Ellie Mae Burroughs died in 1979. No one old enough to have a clear memory of the Burroughs farmhouse in August 1936 is still alive. Living memory of the summer visit there has vanished, along with the visitors and their hosts. Recent visitors report that the houses themselves have collapsed into the Alabama dirt."

The collaboration between Walker Evans as photographer and James Agee as writer resulted in one of the most provocative books in American literature, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941). While at work on this book, the two also conceived another less well known but equally important book project entitled Many Are Called. This three-year photographic study of subway passengers made with a hidden camera was first published in 1966, with an introduction written by Agee in 1940.

Author Jerry Thompson provides us with copies of these photos in this 47-page Kindle edition. His descriptions of the settings, the people involved, and even the range of photo equipment used, added to creating a three dimensional image of the people and the settings during the 1930s. This is a highly recommended and absorbing read for those interested in 20th Century history and photography alike.

4.0 out of 5 stars "It's true dear." Jan. 17 2013
By Amelia Gremelspacher - Published on
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Ellie Mae Burroughs is the uneducated, poor wife a tenant farmer, yet her observation of the work of two brilliant students is the most astute of them all. She thought the picture ugly. This book tells the story behind the picture, the technical details, and the set up behind the portraiture. This picture of the Depression had been underwritten by Roosevelt in an effort to make the poverty of the South understood to Democratic voters. Much has been written about the use of people as subjects, but as Ellie said, "It's true dear."
5.0 out of 5 stars Loved this book! Wise and Touching. Oct. 21 2012
By HUgh Gilmore, author of Malcolm's Wine - Published on
Format: Kindle Edition
I was so touched by this book. The technical aspects of the photography process is explained in terms of how it affected the subjects' ways of posing. The bios of Evans and Agee. The comments on the photographs themselves. The explanation of how the pix came to be shot, what happened to them afterward. The way the secondary art market works. The quietly dignified and inspiring follow-up to the subjects years later. Just loved it. Not a dull moment.
A very human story set in a wonderful historical/sociological perspective.
4.0 out of 5 stars Great Depression Photograph Feb. 9 2013
By Amazon Customer - Published on
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
As a collector of original 19th and 20th Century photography, I've owned a number of FSA Depression era photographs by Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and Arthur Rothstein. So I was fascinated by this "The Story of a Photograph," an examination of one of Walker Evan's most famous images, that of Ellie Mae Burroughs, a young woman whose face came to symbolize America's Great Depression. An insightful and entertaining book, I'd recommend it to the serious photographer, collector, or historian.