QUESTION: Although documentary photography attempts to be impartial about the situation it records, there are aesthetic approaches taken by photographers that elicit a strong reaction from the viewer. Allie Mae Burroughs, Wife of a Cotton Sharecropper, Hale County Alabama, taken by Walker Evans that was made as part of a project that addressed the plight of migrant workers during the Great Depression. Consider his choice of setting, lighting, compositional arrangement, and title, among other strategies, to describe aspects of the Evans photograph that you think have been manipulated by the artist to produce an empathetic response from the viewer.
(Uppsala Universitet, 2011)
Walker Evans has set up his photograph “Allie Mae Burroughs, Wife of a Cotton Sharecropper, Hale County Alabama,” beautifully. I would speculate that every technique used in this photo was used with the intention to reveal a simplistic way of life that has been very wearing.
In first looking at the 3 main textures captured in the photo the viewer sees the rough wood grain of the backdrop, the detailed pattern material on Allie Mae’s blouse and the smooth texture of her skin. These three main textures create a great contrast. This contrast reveals a rough abrasive environment that this soft individual is surrounded by. The building is her environment, and it is rough and surrounds her every moment. Her blouse is her labor and tasks. She is very busy not having even a moment for herself. She has so much too do and barely enough time to do it. Her environment requires her labor. The third main texture is her skin. It is soft and smooth and is the only constant in the piece. We see how the skin is revealing wrinkles showing time and abuse from the environment and labor, but the skin is resilient against its opposition.
The flat lighting creating little dimension, may lead the viewer to further speculate that the life of this migrant worker is very simple and monotonous. She works hard long hours day after day sticking to her routine. Her stark expression cues the viewer to know she is turning into a machine. She has been hardened, by life, extreme conditions and hard work. The wrinkles on her forehead help the viewer know she is less than happy about her current situation, but the gaze in her eyes show that she knows this is all she has.
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