Mrs Burroughs, Mona Lisa

We’ll never know the true meaning of Ellie Mae’s struggling smile.

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Walker Evans

Documentary photography was an inevitability in 1920s America. Suddenly, compact cameras were available to capture the wrenching opening chapters of the century–the urban slums, the cruelty of child labour, the horrors of racial violence, the ruin of war. Walker Evans believed that he held in his hands a weapon to challenge the inequities he saw everywhere.

In July 1936, Evans was handpicked by Fortune writer James Agee for an assignment documenting the grinding lives of poor white Southern sharecroppers. The pair journeyed to Hale County, Alabama, where they eventually met Floyd Burroughs, his wife, Ellie Mae and their five children. The couple owned almost nothing: their dog-trot shack, land, mule, tools, everything belonged to their landlord, who took half of all the cotton and corn they produced. By the time they’d paid out their costs, the Burroughs ended 1935 $12 in debt.

Floyd offered one of their two bedrooms to Agee and Evans. The journalist spent most of his days with Ellie Mae, helping her out with her chores as they talked. For his part, Evans spent much of his time trying to photograph her, though she would always duck out the door the moment he set up his 8×10 view camera.

So instead, he carried a 35mm rangefinder Leica, fitted with a right-angle finder so he could photograph her undetected. He grabbed his first shot of Ellie Mae this way as she walked to the barn one day. “They sneaked that one on me,” she later recounted. Finally she agreed to a portrait, and Evans set up his 8×10 outside, using the clapboard wall for a backdrop. He shot took four negatives that day: Ellie Mae was nervous about showing her teeth, and the first two show wary eyes, a rather tense, clamped mouth. Those first two negs were thin, suggesting Evans didn’t bother with a flashbulb, or that it didn’t sync properly. He moved his camera closer for the second pair, re-framing and refocussing as he undoubtedly tried to get Ellie Mae to relax. She did—a little. They show eyes more open, her mouth, if not smiling, at least less grim. Her head is tilted slightly to one side. There’s evidence—a catchlight in Ellie’s eyes—that suggests Evans put a bit of fill in there this time, skilfully done with a blunt instrument like a flash bulb, although he owned an adaptor that allowed him to fit smaller-than-standard bulbs to his gun. His pictures show a woman who could be showing anything from bemused indulgence to glowing anger or resentment.

Agee’s story and Evans’ photographs never made it into Fortune. Editors deemed them too subversive, too powerful. When they demanded a second draft, Agee refused, and the story was killed. However, Ellie Mae’s portrait eventually appeared in 1941, in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a book Agee wrote about the Great Depression. It sold just 600 copies, despite critical acclaim: in a review for the Kenyon Review in 1942, Lionel Trilling wrote: “Perhaps the most remarkable picture in this book (I think it is one of the finest objects of any art of our time) is the picture of Mrs Burroughs.

“In this picture, Mrs Burroughs, with all her misery and perhaps a touch of pity for herself, simply refuses to be an object of your ‘social consciousness’. She refuses to be an object at all…”

Floyd and Ellie Mae were not given a copy of the book, though Ellie Mae later insisted they did not regret their participation: “They [Agee and Evans] done blessings for me. They was always bringin’ in food for us… They paid for everything they got out of us. Even Floyd liked them.” Her descendants, however, have long maintained the couple were misrepresented, “cast in a light that they couldn’t do any better, that they were doomed, ignorant,” according to her son Charles. And exploited: in 1980, at a Burroughs family reunion in Atlanta, an art dealer pointed to a framed print of Ellie Mae on the wall and told Howell Raines, bureau chief for the New York Times Magazine, that a “good” Ellie Mae would now sell for $4000, a Floyd for $3800. Raines later observed that Floyd, who remained a peasant farmer to the end, was worth more dead than alive.

Ellie Mae only saw the book sometime around 1965. She “read it plum through” before remarking to her daughter that: “Everything in there is true.”