“If exposure is essential, still more so is the reflection.”
Eudora Welty, from Foreword, One Time, One Place
With the exhibition “Eudora Welty: Exposures and Reflections” opening September 2 at the Museum of Mobile, I am reflecting on my memory of Eudora Welty’s visit to Agnes Scott College in 1977. She seemed elderly as she walked up the chapel aisle to read from the podium to the eagerly listening Scotties. Now I realize that she was only in her late 60s. At previous Writers’ Festivals, we had heard Robert Penn Warren, Reynolds Price and Josephine Jacobsen, but Eudora Welty touched our Southern sense of self.
Until a recent visit with Welty’s niece Mary Alice White for the Southern Literary Trail, I was unaware of Welty’s photography. Welty considered her work as a writer and a photographer of equal importance and claimed “her two art forms were parallel activities, with photography never directly affecting the product of her pen” (exhibition brochure). The juxtaposition of Welty’s words with the photographs in the exhibition may question her assertion.
At the opening of the exhibition, Frances Robb, an independent art and cultural historian who specializes in historic photography, will discuss Welty’s photography in the context of other women photographers. In the early 1930s, Eudora Welty traveled around Mississippi as a junior publicity agent for the WPA (Works Progress Administration). On these trips, Welty photographed people from many diverse racial and economic backgrounds. Welty’s short story, “Death of a Traveling Salesman,” was published in 1936 and received high acclaim that catapulted Welty into the American spotlight as one of the century’s great Southern literary voices. Welty claimed that her photography did not directly affect her writing, but narrative is present in both creative expressions.
In the exhibit’s wall text, curator Jacob Laurence states “the two art forms become a detailed record of the region and iconic images of the South, along the way leading people through a winding story from the mind and experiences of one storyteller.” Welty explained herself in her autobiographical One Writer’s Beginnings:
“My instinct—the dramatic instinct—was to lead me, eventually, on the right
track for a storyteller: the scene was full of hints, pointers, suggestions and promises of things to find out and know about human beings.”
As editor and contributor of Eudora Welty as Photographer and winner of the 2009 Eudora Welty Award, Pearl McHaney, associate professor of English at Georgia State University, notes that Welty’s photographs reflect her “recording of the Great Depression South without an agenda other than her own curiosity and artistic eye.” When the exhibition travels from Mobile to the Troy University’s Rosa Parks Library and Museum in Montgomery and Atlanta History Center in Georgia, McHaney will lecture on Welty as a photographer.