This article is a tribute to Michael Williamson, who documented the living conditions of the sharecroppers of the cotton plantations of Alabama 50 years after the famous report by Walker Evans and James Agee. Williamson worked with the writer Dale Maharidge between 1986 and 1988. Read more after the jump!
In the summer of 1936, Fortune magazine sent young photographer Walker Evans and writer James Agee to Alabama to document the hard living conditions of the sharecroppers of the cotton plantations there. To protect their privacy and dignity, Evans’ pictures had no captions while Agee changed the names of places and people. For example, the town of Greensboro and Moundville became Centerboro and Cookstown.
Their work was initially considered not fit for publication by the journal, especially due to the Agee’s experimental style which was considered too direct, complex, and vast. Published only after five years, in 1941 with the title Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, this reportage has become a cult book that elevated Agee to the ranks of the best contemporary American writers such as William Faulkner and John Steinbeck.
The book’s title was taken from the first verse of the Book of Ecclesiasticus in the Bible. Fifty years later, photographer Michael Williamson and writer Dale Maharidge returned to the same place, meeting the descendants of the families who have welcomed Agee and Evans to their houses and documenting the social change in the area in a book entitled And Their Children After Them (again a line from the same biblical book).
In writing a tribute to them, in a country totally different from Alabama in the United States, I decided to feature a series of photos of the Monumental Cemetery of Cagliari, one of the most important places in Italy. To explain my choice, I will quote some verses from the Ecclesiasticus (or Sirach) here, which had also inspired the titles of both books and of this article:
“Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers in their generations. The Lord apportioned to them great glory, his majesty from the beginning. There were those who ruled in their kingdoms, and were men renowned for their power […] rich men furnished with resources, living peaceably in their habitations. All these were honored in their generations, and were the glory of their times. There are some of them who have left a name, so that men declare their praise. And there are some who have no memorial, who have perished as though they had not lived; they have become as though they had not been born, and so have their children after them. But these were men of mercy, whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten; their prosperity will remain with their descendants, and their inheritance to their children’s children. Their descendants stand by the covenants; their children also, for their sake. Their posterity will continue for ever, and their glory will not be blotted out. Their bodies were buried in peace, and their name lives to all generations.” (Revised Standard Version)
The most touching story in Williamson and Maharidge’s book is that of Maggie Louise. She was 10 years old when her parents served as hosts to Agee and Evans in 1936. She was a girl of great intelligence, one who argued with Evans about distant countries, stars, and eternity, and one who was also vaguely aware that somewhere else life could not be so miserable as that of the Alabama farmers. Year after year, her ambition to become a nurse or teacher slowly vanished. She married young, continuing to cultivate cotton. Her ambitions were reduced to some hopes and, over the years, to few little desires. But when even those had no chance of success, she discovered that she could not expect anything more. And so in 1971, she decided to commit suicide.
The book describes the town’s local cemetery, where many tenants were buried in unmarked graves upon which home objects, such as cups, saucers, or other household utensils were often placed. When Williamson went to the place, he found a deteriorated road map on Maggie Louise’s grave.
So when I visited the Cemetery of the Bonaria in Cagliari and found a child’s grave on which some toys were laid (see the last two photos), I was immediately reminded of the story of this girl and also found a way to write a tribute to her and to Williamson. And just like in the local cemetery in Alabama, here in Cagliari you can also find unnamed burial grounds of the poor as well as important funerary monuments of famous or rich men.
Their bodies were buried in peace, and their name lives to all generations.
A Salute to the Masters is a series dedicated to great photographers that I like. I posted other tributes for Walker Evans, Lee Friedlander, Helen Levitt, Ernst Haas, Stephen Shore, Gabriele Basilico, Robert Adams, Thomas Struth, J.H. Lartigue, Elliott Erwitt, Robert Frank, Gianni Berengo Gardin, André Kertész, Willy Ronis, Brassaï, Rodchenko, Dan Graham, Henry Grant, William Eggleston, Dennis Stock, Juergen Teller, Martin Parr, Peter Mitchell, Mario Giacomelli, David Burnett and Izis Bidermanas. I especially love street photography and urban architectural photography.