Eudora Welty was revered as a doyenne in Southern literature. Her work captured the nuances of life in both rural and urban Mississippi. Few of her literary devotees knew that she was also a prolific photographer, capturing everything from a fruit still life to a gaggle of black children crowded around her lens.
An exhibit of her photographs is part of the Southern Regionalists exhibition on display at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art through July 14. The exhibit also includes the art of William R. Hollingsworth Jr. and Walter Inglis Anderson.
Welty’s work served as period snapshots, capturing everyday moments in the life of both white and black residents in Mississippi: three tow-headed boys at the county fair, a black girl in her Sunday best. Venturing further afield, another photo shows people milling about in Depression-era New York City. Her pictures were spontaneous, yet definitive, detailing whatever was important in each shot.
“Welty didn’t always have the best equipment; she was self-taught, but the exhibit shows her work in the hands of a master printer,” said Richard McCabe, curator of photography at the Ogden Museum. “Some of her original photos were printed in her kitchen.”
McCabe said there is a range of subject matter in the exhibit and a number of her original, vintage prints were captioned and signed by Welty.
The exhibit will also display a range of contact prints to show the progression of her work surrounding a particular subject, including photos in New Orleans and in New York City when she was a student at Columbia University.
Welty was a publicity agent for the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s and 1940s, and she set out to document people and places in every county in Mississippi. However, in her travels, Welty found a number of striking images unrelated to her WPA work, including a group of mattress makers, tomato packers and an older woman cooking outside in a big pot. Welty was fearless in her approach and created sets of vintage prints from the era.
“The WPA sent her all over Mississippi, so she just took her camera with her,” McCabe said.
The Welty Foundation approached the Ogden about hosting an exhibit of her photos, and the museum already had about 15 photos in its collection.
“It was just the perfect storm,” McCabe said.
He said that a lot of Welty’s photos weren’t released until she published a book in the 1970s, “One Place, One Time.”
“A lot of people didn’t know that side of her,” McCabe said.
One of her famous photos is the “Pageant of the Birds,” when Welty captured a group of women who dressed up in bird feathers each year; another is a set of photos that were set in different days of the week, including a “Pay Day” image for Friday, shopping on Saturday and church on Sunday. She also photographed a number of buildings and landscapes. Each section of the exhibit will be organized by theme.
The Welty and Hollingsworth exhibits are on display through July 14. The Anderson exhibit is an ongoing display at the Ogden.