Sunday 04 August 2002

The things’ view of it

James Agee draws no specific connection between the photograph Walker Evans made of the Burroughs kitchen in Hale County, Alabama in 1936 and the paragraphs that open A Country Letter, Part One of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Yet it is impossible not to believe that the lamp Evans photographed through the kitchen doorway one summer’s day in 1936 is not the same lamp upon which Agee focused his attention while Evans lay sleeping.

Walker Evans: Burroughs Kitchen, Hale County, Alabama, 1936It is late in a summer night, in a room of a house set deep and solitary in the country; all in this house save myself are sleeping; I sit at a table, facing a partition wall; and I am looking at a lighted coal-oil lamp which stands on the table close to the wall, and just beyond the sleeping of my relaxed left hand; with my right hand I am from time to time writing, with a soft pencil, into a school-child’s composition book; but just now, I am entirely focused on the lamp, and light.

It is of glass, light metal colored gold, and cloth of heavy thread.

The glass was poured into a mold, I guess, that made the base and bowl, which are in one piece; the glass is thick and clean, with icy lights in it. The base is a simply fluted, hollow skirt; stands on the table; is solidified in a narrowing, a round inch of pure thick glass, then hollows again, a globe about half flattened, the globe-glass thick, too; and this holds oil, whose silver line I see, a little less than half down the globe, its level a very little — for the base is not quite true — tilted against the axis of the base.

This ‘oil’ is not at all oleaginous, but thin, brittle, rusty feeling, and sharp; taken and rubbed between forefinger and thumb, it so cleanses their grain that it sharpens their mutual touch to a new coin edge, or the russet nipple of a breast erected in cold; and the odor is clean, cheerful and humble, less alive by far than that of gasoline, even a shade watery: and a subtle sweating of this oil is on the upward surface of the globe, as if it stood through the glass, and as if the glass were a pitcher of cool water in a hot room. I do not understand nor try to deduce this, but I like it; I run my thumb upon it and smell of my thumb, and smooth away its streaked print on the glass; and I wipe my thumb and forefinger dry against my pants, and keep on looking.

In this globe, and in this oil that is clear and light as water, and reminding me of creatures and things once alive which I have seen suspended in jars in a frightening smell of alcohol—serpents, tapeworms, toads, embryons, all drained one tan pallor of absolute death; and also of the serene, scarved flowers in untroubled wombs (and pale-tanned too, flaccid, and in the stench of exhibited death, those children of fury, patience and love which stand in the dishonors of accepted fame, and of the murdering of museum staring); in this globe like a thought, a dream, the future, slumbers the stout-weft strap of wick, and up this wick is drawn the oil, toward heat; through a tight, flat tube of tin, and through a little slotted smile of golden tin, and there ends fledged with flame, in the flue; the flame, a clean, tanged fan:

Looking at Evans’s photograph (one of 61 that begin the book) then reading Agee’s prose, I thought (as I always do) of an essay by Jean-Luc Godard, called My Approach in Four Movements, in which he outlines his plan for making the film Two or Three Things I Know About Her:

If one now analyses this project for a film, one sees that my approach can be divided into four principal movements.

1. Objective Description (or at least attempt at description, Ponge would say)

    1. objective description of objects: houses, cars, cigarettes, apartments, shops, beds, TV sets, books, clothes, etc.
    2. objective description of subjects: the characters, Juliette, the American, Robert, the hairdresser, Marianne, the travellers, the motorists, the social workers, the old man, the children, the passers-by, etc.

2. Subjective Description (or at least attempt)

    1. subjective description of subjects: particularly by way of feelings, that is through scenes more or less written and acted.
    2. subjective description of objects: settings seen from the inside, where the world is outside, behind the windows, or on the other side of the walls

The poet Francis Ponge, who exerted a considerable influence on Godard when he was making A Married Woman and Two or Three Things…, published a book of prose poems called Le Parti Pris des Chose (roughly The Thing’s View of It) in which he attempted (in Tom Milne’s words) “to get back to the basic task of the poet: the naming of things, or to put it another way, the treatment of objects as subjects.”

It is clearly simplistic to suggest that Evans handles the “objective description” of objects and subjects whereas Agee takes responsibility for their “subjective description.” since a substantial part of the beauty of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men lies in the ease with which both artists move fluidly from one descriptive role to another.

Yet ever since I first saw Two or Three Things… and read Godard’s essay and some of Ponge’s poems, I’ve felt that Godard’s approach in four movements, which offers a precise yet limitless blueprint for any work that attempts to combine words and images, also acts as a lucid summary of Evans and Agee’s approach.

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Wonderful pictures, and interesting....

(comment in progress)

Posted by Shelley Powers on 5 August 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Shelley, they are indeed wonderful pictures, and interesting too. Jeff Ward will probably disagree but I believe that Walker Evans and Robert Frank are the two greatest photographers who ever lived (and Ansel Adams and Henri Cartier-Bresson are the two worst).

I'm also pleased to see that you have invented a new blogging paradigm, the "comment in progress." I look forward to seeing how you edit or modify your comment.

Posted by Jonathon Delacour on 5 August 2002 (Comment Permalink)

(Jonathon, sweeties, dearest, you interrupted the flow of my comment. You stepped on my thread. _that_ is your post, this is _my_ comment. Tsk, tsk, tsk. Some people just can't get how these new paradigms work. Tsk.)

Posted by Shelley Powers on 5 August 2002 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour