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How Eudora Welty Captured 1930s New York City on Film

Annette Trefzer on What Welty Learned From Berenice Abbott

In August of 1934, Eudora Welty applied for admission to Berenice Abbott’s photography class at the New School of Social Research in New York City. In the letter she aligned herself against the pictorial style of Doris Ulmann’s photography, expressed her wish to know more about the printing and enlarging processes, and sought some help with an “entrée into the business world of photography.”

At this point Abbott had been photographing New York for five years, and though she did have contacts in the art and gallery world, she had not yet been successful in procuring lucrative employment for herself in the midst of the Depression. Her teaching position and commissioned assignments kept her afloat, and she had been at the New School for barely a year when Welty made her inquiry. Apparently no response from Abbott to Welty’s letter exists; she did not begin the photography class in the fall but came back to New York on her own, trying to sell a book of photography and fiction titled “Black Saturday.”

Welty wanted to study with Abbott for the likely practical reason that she was embedded in the liberal educational setting of the New School of Social Research, an institution quite different from the Columbia School of Business. In the 1930s the New School was an important meeting point of artistic and academic faculty who accepted “racial and religious tolerance, modern art, sexual equality, and internationalism.”

The New School faculty especially affirmed urban themes and progressive interests: Lewis Mumford, who was teaching there, “virtually invented the city as a subject for serious scholarly study,” and Abbott documented urban space. Welty, who enjoyed the rich culture of New York City, sought every opportunity to visit, and joining Abbott’s class would have been a way to get a foothold there.

But more was at stake: Welty wanted to work with Abbott because she envisioned a career in photography. Her letter to Abbott is therefore not a casual inquiry easily reduced to an anecdote in our conversations about Welty’s photography.

On the contrary, Welty’s letter to Abbott is evidence of her knowledge of contemporary photography and her serious inquiry into her chosen career field: Whom did she need to work with in order to advance in photography? Where did she need to be to be considered and noticed? Who could offer technical expertise, contacts in the art world, connections to other photographers, and American and European clients? Who offered a modern aesthetic sensibility that appealed to her?

We should keep in mind that Welty wrote only to Abbott, and not to any of the other photographers working for the FSA or elsewhere. Welty approached a young female photographer—only ten years her senior—who had made a name for herself in the art world of 1920s Paris and Berlin, where she first apprenticed to and worked with the legendary photographer Man Ray, met Alfred Stieglitz, whose style of photography she later rejected, and acquired the entire photographic archive of Eugène August Atget, whom she photographed in 1927, shortly before he died.

If Abbott’s artistic talent, reputation, androgynous beauty, and connections to rich patrons—Peggy Guggenheim was one of her portrait customers—may have been known mostly in circles among the American expatriates and the French intelligentsia, news of her discovery and acquisition of the Atget archive had arrived in the US in 1928 before Abbott’s actual return, when the American syndicated press ran a story about the “American Girl [Who] Finds Photographer’s Plates Showing French Life.” When the Depression struck, Abbott returned home to the US and began rebuilding her career by exhibiting in New York City.

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Abbott was an outspoken critic of pictorialism, which she defines as “the making of pleasant, pretty, artificial pictures in the superficial spirit of certain minor painters,” and as such it is “the greatest influence obscuring the entire field of photography.”

By contrast, her own approach to photography sought to capture “the pulse of today,” by which she meant an unsentimental assessment of modern America, including an awareness of geographic changes during the Depression. Inspired by Abbott’s stylistic visualization of city space and her mastery of the medium, Welty also photographed in New York City.

The photography of Abbott and Welty, McHaney suggests, shows “notable affinities.” Examples of shared locations, topics, and visual languages in their New York photographs illustrate this claim. The photographer and her would-be apprentice photographed public space, including city street life, public parks, landmarks, and commercial signage. They shot everyday landscapes with an eye to design and historical value and contemporary significance. Eleven of the twenty-six photographs Welty took of New York have been published to this date, an indirect acknowledgment of this location’s importance to Welty’s visual lessons.

Whereas Abbott focuses on the built landscape, Welty documents the human landscape.

Welty loved being in New York City not just for museums and Broadway musicals but for being out in the streets and observing life there. Welty and Abbott both document street life on the Lower East Side. Welty’s “East Side/ New York City /1930s” [953] shows a variety of street vendors with their carts along the sidewalk of a city street. In this commercial district, stores occupy the downstairs of multistory buildings with apartments above.

The stores advertise for “Ladies Hand Bags” and “imported candies,” and the buildings have signs announcing “4 Rooms to Let.” Welty stands in the street and shoots back at the sidewalk, where multiple vendors and customers peruse the stands and carts. The impression is of a bustling street scene against a busy array of signs, balconies, and pedestrian-scale streetlamps.

Welty_Union Square Eudora Welty. [1000] Untitled. Union Square. NYC, 1935–36. Reprinted by the permission of Russell & Volkening as agents for Eudora Welty, copyright ©1988 by Eudora Welty.Abbott also documents street vendors with their wooden pushcarts in the same neighborhood in the photograph “Hester Street, between Allen and Orchard Streets.” Unlike Welty, Abbott who had access to prearranged shooting locations, chooses an extreme overhead view looking down on the action from a second-story window.

But, like Welty, she captures this informal bustling street scene of bargaining. Both photographs convey the economic strata of this working-class neighborhood and its ethnic diversity. Despite the differences in perspective, both photographers document impromptu street markets that would disappear in the years ahead.

In Changing New York, Abbott includes many images of street vendors from almost every part of the city. There is the postcard vendor in front of the Department of Docks in the Wall Street District, a little sales cart on South and DePeyster Streets, whose rickety improvisational appearance contrasts with the sleek skyscraper in the background, almost as if medieval and modern times coexisted.

There is the close-up of the “Roast Corn Man” on the Lower East Side, whose handmade cart is topped with a stove pipe releasing steam; and on the Lower West Side, there is the hot dog and lemonade stand whose owner sports a spotless white apron. By photographing the horse-drawn Sheffield Farms milk wagon in Greenwich Village and the traveling tin shop in Brooklyn, Abbott clicks the shutter not only on the improvisational livelihoods of the urban poor during the Depression but on disappearing social spaces in a changing economy.

Both photographers include people in their cityscapes, but whereas Welty is interested in recording cultural history, Abbott focuses on architectural history. The differences are clear in their photographs of a shared location: Union Square. Welty’s photograph [1004] titled “The Unemployed and the Apple Seller” in the photobook In Black and White, and taken in Union Square, shows a wooden pushcart with different fruits—oranges, pears, and apples—nicely ordered on a shallow tray with prices displayed. It looks like an orange is to be had for three cents. The sun slants in from the right, warming this winter scene and illuminating the upside-down sign “Florida Tangerines.” Beyond the cart a small group of people are assembled.

In a second photograph [1037], we can still see the apple seller in the lower right corner, but Welty has moved around the block and is now capturing a group of men assembled around a speaker standing on a crate flanked by an American flag.

Moving closer, a third photograph titled “Union Square, New York City / 1930s” in Photographs documents the political speaking event. In the center foreground a street cone marks the assembly spot from which triangular street markings open a field of vision onto the assembled crowd in the middle picture plane.

In the background behind the crowd, an arrow advises “Keep Right” to the police department. Another apple cart is strategically placed behind the speaker, close to the hungry crowd in the center of the image. This group of men has assembled in front of Kitty Kelly’s Shoes, a women’s shoe store, whose entrance is defined by a huge commercial sign depicting a beautiful woman seated on a chair and raising her leg in a seductive Folies Bergère move. Her dress falls back, exposing her shapely leg while she admires her new shoes. Welty’s image contrasts the group of unemployed men with the seductive woman on the poster, a commercial goddess representing perhaps unattainable economic and sexual desires.

Eudora Welty’s photographs of Union Square reflect a geopolitical landscape marked by unemployment and stagnation that was of great concern to her.

Abbott and Welty also include statuary in their photographs as part of the everyday urban landscape. In a photograph of Union Square, Welty looks at a group of men in coats and hats who linger by the iron fence that cordons off a statue of George Washington on his horse seen from the rear. This image titled “Union Square / New York City / 1930s” in Photographs captures the loitering men with their backs to the photographer. But in the center of the image, a man holding a newspaper looks directly at the photographer, acknowledging her presence.

The image is dynamic: men are gathering for a demonstration forming in the front left middle ground and pigeons are milling about in the right foreground. Winter-bare trees offer a view of the cityscape in the background. This is not a tourist photo of Union Square but one in which public art, the historically significant equestrian statue, is included in an everyday way, possibly as a counterpoint to the street-level action.

Abbott also addresses statuary in one of her photographs of Union Square, but unlike Welty, she does not include protesting or loitering men. Abbott’s selection of three photographs of Union Square for Changing New York depicts the architecture of the midtown Manhattan commercial and historical environment.

In “Middle East Side 1,” she stands in the park behind Frederic Auguste Bartholdi’s bronze statue of the Marquis de Lafayette, which marks the left foreground, giving a full view of S. Klein’s Department Store in the background. The Marquis’s sculpted mantle drapes onto the pedestal as he looks at the department store, and following the gesture of his left hand, we can see the 1934 NRA [National Recovery Act] poster with the company name on the top story of the building.

Both Welty and Abbott include in their frames the NRA sign on top of Klein’s Department Store. As Pollack and Marrs comment, the code sign “ironically represents not recovery so much as economic suffering (EW and Politics 248). In Abbott’s photograph Klein’s advertisement for “the Best Dressed Women,” illustrated with a row of silhouettes of slim and elegant mannequins, underscores such irony. In Welty’s photographs the loitering unemployed men accomplish this ironic contrast.

Whereas Abbott focuses on the built landscape, Welty documents the human landscape. Welty’s photographs of Union Square reflect a geopolitical landscape marked by unemployment and stagnation that was of great concern to her: “These people of the Great Depression,” Welty recounted, “kept alive on the determination to get back to work and to make a living again. I photographed them in Union Square and in subways and sleeping in subway stations and huddling together to keep warm, and I felt, then, sort of placed in the editorial position as I took their pictures. Recording the mass of them did constitute a plea on their behalf to the public, their existing plight being so evident in the mass.”

The editorializing impulse is an integral part of the documentary genre. In Welty’s Union Square photographs, it is subtly employed in representations of dignified men of working age waiting on park benches in public places because they have nowhere to go.

In three previously unpublished photographs, Welty captures groups of men talking or reading the paper in the winter sunshine. In photograph [999], five men are sitting and leaning on a low wall; they talk in small groups, mostly unaware of the photographer except for one man who returns the gaze.

Photograph [1001] is of the same location, in the park in front of S. Klein’s Department Store, where some men have assembled. The public loitering of the unemployed is also documented in photograph [1000]. Looking directly at Union Square Savings Bank, in photograph [955] published in Eudora Welty and Politics (250), Welty made sure to include the occupants of a park bench where a couple is sharing a newspaper and two people are dozing. A man is bent over the drinking fountain, turning his back to the photographer, and another one is perching on a park rail, sitting like a child with his legs dangling.

The subject at the center of the image is the Union Square Savings Bank, a Greek Revival style building with four Corinthian columns, a reminder both of a more glorious past and of the present banking crisis. Welty’s photographs target cultural history, specifically the stasis caused by the Depression in a normally fast-paced city. Photographs of the loitering unemployed gathered in a public space famous for hosting demonstrations in times of social upheaval signal both the current hopelessness and the potential for political change. Welty may have visited Union Square specifically to take what Abbott called “the pulse of today.”

In photograph [954], she captures a well-dressed man who is posing for the photographer, his hat pulled low over his eyes, next to his makeshift shoeshine business composed of a wooden stool and a toolbox with a carrying strap. The shoeshine box is in the center foreground of the image, drawing the viewer’s attention. Next to the man, a woman bends over a stroller, and George Washington on his horse rides heroically into the picture.

Reprinted as “Shoeshine Stand / Union Square / New York City / 1930s” in Photographs (169), the image addresses the incongruity of the man’s middle-class appearance with his impromptu “business.” The photograph confronts the viewer with the humbling and dire condition of the subject, and in doing so exerts social and moral concerns.

Together, the ten photographs of Union Square reveal Welty’s modern documentary vision. She does not turn her camera away from expressions of unemployment but frames them in images connoting economic and social conditions. Photograph [1003] of men waiting in line in front of a building is another example. The horizontal stripes of the half-raised blinds—neatly elevated to the same level and giving a view to the inside—are a defining design feature of this image.

But the topic is the viewer’s confrontation with the line of waiting men. Caught from behind, the men in long winter coats are unaware of the camera eye that records their experience. Are they waiting in front of an employment agency as in Dorothea Lange’s photograph taken in San Francisco in 1937? Or are they part of one of the many breadlines famously caught by Margaret Bourke-White in her photograph that contrasts the plight of the hungry with the poster advertising “The World’s Highest Standard of Living”?

Welty’s focus on the human crisis finds expression in formally well-executed images that bring to mind the distinction that the photographer Edward Steichen made in 1938 about FSA photography when he noted two types of documentary photographs: one provides factual information, the other a sense of lived experience (W. Stott 11). In Welty’s photographs “facts” and experience converge in a vision that endows place with feeling.

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Text excerpts from Exposing Mississippi: Eudora Welty’s Photographic Reflections by Annette Trefzer are reproduced with permission of University Press of Mississippi, Copyright © 2022 by University Press of Mississippi. All rights reserved.

Annette Trefzer
Annette Trefzer
Annette Trefzer is professor of English at the University of Mississippi. She is author of Exposing Mississippi: Eudora Welty’s Photographic Reflections and Disturbing Indians: The Archaeology of Southern Fiction and coeditor of Global Faulkner; Faulkner’s Sexualities; Faulkner and Mystery; Faulkner and Formalism: Returns of the Text; and Faulkner and the Native South, all published by University Press of Mississippi, and her work has appeared in many journals.





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