Updated: Dec 15, 2019
Eudora Welty was both photographer and writer, and for this she has my ultimate respect and admiration. I recently read a critical analysis of her photos and stories and the connections between the two and one photo, in particular, caught my attention. "Window Shopping" reveals what the author describes as "woman's reverie and the idea of her personal choice" (p94). The photo shows a thin Negro woman, dressed for town in a pleasant, summer-appropriate dress and hat, standing alone in front of a store picture window, one hand planted at the small of her back with the other cradling her chin, contemplating with intensity something behind the glass, but outside the framing of the photo. But, this is not what made me reread the discussion or spend several minutes engrossed in this photo. What caught my attention was the four different titles under which this photo has been shown. Welty attached three of the titles herself, at three different times and for different occasions. To begin with, Welty wrote on the back of the original photo print from 1930, the title "Teachers Don't Get Paid". Only Welty could know the backstory of this photo, assuming she had some engagement with the subject which led her to invoke the theme of teachers and pay, and things unattainable. On the back of a contact print used in a 2013 exhibit, again in Welty's own handwriting, is the title "Payday". No date is evident for this title. This title is less descriptive, but implies a completely different theme, this time one in which the subject has money to spend on things displayed in store windows. In one of Welty's New York shows, someone employed in mounting the show labelled the piece "Lingerie". This title takes the focus off the subject of the picture and projects it into the store window off camera, leading a viewer to a more sexual representation of women in general, and black women in particular. Finally, Welty changed the caption to "Window Shopping". Of the four titles, this is the most benign, catering to all women regardless of race, class and financial situation. The varying titles show the division between participant and observer, documentary and artistry, societal and individual interpretation. The photo and its titles also remark on the perceptions of four different people, and their unique stories: the subject who is drawn to the picture window by the allure of things out of reach, and conversely within reach; the photographer, or observer on the street, seizing a moment and making a judgement within the limited context of the scene; a future observer who has nothing with which to frame the photo except whatever caption or minimalist discussion has been included to describe or explain the photo, provided by someone with just as little knowledge of the scene as the observor themself; and finally someone within the store, looking out from behind the window. This last participant in the photo might be someone who already possesses these things of allure, i.e., someone who can afford to shop in the store rather than gaze longingly from the outside, or someone who possesses by virtue of working within the store. Can she also be looking at things unattainable when she watches people on the outside stop to look in, can she be looking for a different kind of allure, one that doesn't require her to be on display? The same phenomena occurs, I think, in fiction and gives me something to think about as I continue to develop the two main characters in my second novel. One, a minister farmer at the end of his life in the 1930s gives himself one last chance to leave something of value behind; the other,
a young college student searching for her place in family and community set in the 2000s. Both are exploring the same stories, the same information, the same history but from these two very different vantage points. My working title "Balderdash" generates a number of questions, but I ultimately wonder what my minister farmer would have to say about it. In the same way, I'd be curious to know what the young woman in "Window Shopping" would have given as the title of the photo if she had been offered the chance.
Eudora Welty focused much of her photography in her home state of Mississippi during the Depression years, highlighting the economic as well as racial and cultural changes taking place there. My thanks to Harriet Pollack for her book "Eudora Welty's Fiction and Photography, The Body of the Other Woman", published by The University of Georgia Press in 2016.