Significant documents: photography and narrative from Alvin Langdon Coburn’s and Henry James’s New York Edition (1907-9), to Walker Evans’s and James Agee’s ‘Let us now Praise Famous Men’ (1941, 1960)
AffiliationSchool of Culture and Communication
Document TypePhD thesis
CitationsPound, P. (2011). Significant documents: photography and narrative from Alvin Langdon Coburn’s and Henry James’s New York Edition (1907-9), to Walker Evans’s and James Agee’s ‘Let us now Praise Famous Men’ (1941, 1960). PhD thesis, School of Culture and Communication, The University of Melbourne.
Access StatusThis item is currently not available from this repository
© 2011 Dr. Patrick Pound
This thesis analyses the documentary style in photography as encountered in a peculiar model of books which contain photographs and texts where their artists and authors claim loudly to defy the illustration model whereby a picture is seen to reenact a text. The key subject matter of this thesis is the Pictorialist photographer Alvin Langdon Coburn’s 24 frontispieces for Henry James’s collected works: 'The Novels and tales of Henry James' (1907-9), widely known as 'The New York Edition'; and Walker Evans’s portfolio of documentary style photographs which front 'Let us now Praise Famous Men' (1941, 1960), as if they were an independent book, separate from James Agee’s empurpled text. With these books the authors and photographers identify a problem of photographs in relation to texts — a text and image nexus. Narrative contexts press these photographers and their photographs to work differently. This thesis examines the collaborations between Coburn/James and Evans/ Agee, interrogating the concept of narrative and illustration, and contesting the accepted understanding of Coburn as the quintessential art-photographer of the Pictorialist movement, and of Evans as the master in the emergence of a detached documentary method. This thesis is divided into two halves. The first examines the documentary to be had in Coburn’s Pictorialism. The second examines Evans’s documentary style under the pressures of narrative service. The thesis discovers Coburn’s investment in documentary method and Evans’s investment in narrative. Through a close investigation of the working methods of these apparent opposites, the thesis demonstrates the permeability of the genres, and a much greater convergence of photographic history than has previously been understood by the scholarly literature. In Part One I argue that Coburn’s photographs for 'The New York Edition' ('NYE') are not simply Pictorialist frontispieces. James thought illustration was oxymoronic. To illustrate a novel was to put a hat on a hat. For his definitive edition, James set out to unravel the illustration model, commissioning Coburn to document empty scenes that are suggestive types. In doing so James unwittingly leads Coburn down a documentary path. The 'NYE' calls into question current readings of Coburn as essentially being a pure Pictorialist and Symbolist, pressing us to re-examine his wider oeuvre and allowing us to reclaim him for the archival turn. In Part Two, I interrogate Evans’s sequential arrangements of his famously cool and clinical documentary style photographs in the book 'Let us now Praise Famous Men' (1941, 1960). I reexamine these apparently uninflected documents. This research elbows the accepted wisdom regarding Walker Evans and the quintessential photo-text of the Depression era. Evans described his work as being a lyrical form of documentary style photography, outside of politics and independent of narrative. Individually his photographs appear to be detached records. My re-reading of the telling sequences and juxtapositions of these documentary style photographs in 'Let us now Praise Famous Men' challenges these accepted readings. I don’t set out to uncover a systematic narratological code but to more accurately read the photographs of two giants of photographic history.
KeywordsA. L. Coburn; Henry James; Walker Evans; James Agee; documentary style photography; pictorialism; narrative
- Click on "Export Reference in RIS Format" and choose "open with... Endnote".
- Click on "Export Reference in RIS Format". Login to Refworks, go to References => Import References