In the November 27 Sunday edition of The New York Times, on the edit page, Lawrence Downes wrote a historically introspective piece titled Of Poor Farmers and ‘Famous Men’.
The essay was about the powerful book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, by James Agee, a writer who one critic said wants to write the history of the world on the head of a pin. The photographs in the book are what endure in the mind—a series of black and whites images that show three sharecropper families entrapped by their poverty in Hale County, Alabama. The year was 1936. They photographs impart a desperate feeling of drowning with no air to suck in.
Fortune Magazine assigned this project to Agee and Evans. They magazine eventually turned it down (too artistic) and it was published in 1941 as a book.
Downes visited Hale County twice, once in 1973 and again this year. He found the book was referred to “…as that book.” The author’s thrust was an honest appraisal. According to Downes, one of Evans portraits of a Hale Country girl killed herself with rat poison. Others turned to prostitution. And there was incest and mental impairment, which one can also find in certain isolated communities in the mountains as far north as Maine.
Yet was it honest? The authors changed the names of the people and the towns to protect them from intrusion. Evans, according to Downes, allowed the people to “compose themselves” before the portrait and the interior photographs of their homes are so well designed it makes you wonder if Evans arranged the still lifes to be more balanced.
So was this documentary raw and honest, directed documentary, or was it art, recreating a sense of their economic and social status as Shelby Lee Adams did in his Appalachian series? Does it imply that many outsiders use smoke and mirrors when they depict a class of people who they believe are socially below them?
This brings me to my book Vermont People that I published in 1990. Like Agee and Evan’s book, 13 publishers turned mine down. I had to re-mortgage my home and self publish it.
Vermont People was an instant success; there were huge photo layouts in the press and a couple of times I was called Vermont’s Walker Evans. The first edition of the book sold out in six weeks and it went on to multiple editions. 15,000 were printed before I pulled the plug.
Some think my book shows poverty and a backward type of life. At least this was the opinion of a number of tourists. Most realized what I had produced was an insight to rural Vermont. What I finally understood is that I had documented, in words and photographs, Vermonters who understood their way of life was in transition. I captured a dying, but vibrant culture.
Vermonters wrote and thanked me for recognizing them, that Vermont was more than fall color, red barns, and green pastures. One old Vermonter came into a bookstore in Burlington, where I was signing books. He was dressed in red and black checked wool jacket and matching jodhpurs, long lace boots rose to his calves and a red peaked hat with tied up ear liners, was tucked over his grey hair. “I want to shake your hand,” he said. “Thank you.”
Now I am updating this book with what I call “A Lifetime of Vermont People”.
Some of the pre 1990 photos, the iconic ones, will remain. I am adding 40 new portraits. Included will be writers, artists, professors and, good grief, a governor (but it is a very funny picture).
Perhaps the purity of the first book will be shaded but I like to think this book, much less in talent than Agee and Evan’s Now Let Us Praise Famous Men, is a recognition that our state is a good place to live because of the character of the independent Vermonters. They created our way of life. Below are cover tries. Which do you prefer?