Exposing Mississippi: Eudora Welty’s Photographic Reflections By Annette Trefzer

Exposing Mississippi: Eudora Welty’s Photographic Reflections
By Annette Trefzer
University Press of Mississippi
Paperback, 268 pages

First book-length work on Eudora Welty as photographer heralds artist’s modern vision

By Lauren Rhoades
Special to the Mississippi Clarion Ledger

Most of us encounter Eudora Welty through her prose long before discovering her photography. It’s through no fault of our own—Welty’s short stories, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, and best-selling memoir get most of the (well-deserved) attention. But Eudora Welty pursued photography before writing fiction; she exhibited photos before publishing the short stories that would shift the trajectory of her career.

Annette Trefzer, author of “Exposing Mississippi: Eudora Welty’s Photographic Reflections,” argues that photography remained a lifelong interest and pursuit. In fact, Welty’s final publication in her decades-long artistic career was “Country Churchyards”,a book of photos.

Though previous critical works have examined Welty’s photography through the lens of her fiction, Trefzer’s “Exposing Missississippi”is the first book-length work to grapple with Welty’s photographs as a standalone body of work and “not as prequel to her vocation as a writer.”

Trefzer makes a good case for this approach—again and again, Eudora Welty eschewed comparisons between her photography and fiction. While both forms reflect the artist’s enduring preoccupation with place and story, for Welty, photography and fiction were distinct, unrelated modes of creation.

Annette Trefzer is well-equipped to lead readers through a journey of Welty’s photographic career. A Southern literature scholar and the author of numerous texts on Faulkner, Welty, and Southern fiction, Trefzer is also the co-owner of Bozarts Gallery, a fine art gallery in Water Valley, Mississippi.

“Exposing Mississippi,” brings together the author’s scholarly expertise in literature and her passion for visual arts. Each chapter represents a deep dive into a particular aspect of Welty as photographer, and is peppered with over eighty photos, including some never-before-published archival images.

Trefzer outlines a compelling argument for Welty as a photographer with a modern vision and aesthetic, who was both deeply aware of and reacting to the changing artistic techniques and styles of her time. As Welty began seriously taking photos in the 1930s, she rejected the more traditional “pictorial” style of formal, posed photography in favor of the spontaneous “snapshot.” She favored Recomar and Rolleiflex cameras, portable equipment that allowed her to capture decisive moments and gestures.

“I never posed anybody…” Welty said, “I let my subjects go on with what they were doing, and by framing or cutting and selection, found what composition arose from that.”

Trefzer also addresses the striking parallels between Welty’s Depression-era photographs of rural Mississippi and those photos taken by Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographers (none of whom, ironically, were from Mississippi or the Deep South).

Side-by-side images show a photo of a white cotton sharecropper in Lauderdale County next to a photo of a white road worker in Lowndes County. Both subjects wear dark brimmed hats and white collared shirts. Both are smoking cigarettes. The images are remarkably similar, yet the Lauderdale County photo was taken by FSA photographer Arthur Rothstein, the Lowndes County photo by Eudora Welty.

While she did work for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) for six months as a junior publicist, Welty’s photographic interest was entirely self-directed, unlike those other photographers who received clear directives from Roy Stryker. She captured Black and white Mississippians engaged in work and leisure. She turned her eye on landscapes, parades, tombstones, and political gatherings. Her photographs reveal a keen political awareness and a sharp wit.

“Exposing Mississippi” serves as a helpful and informative guide through the vast Eudora Welty photographic archives. Annette Trefzer delivers thoughtful historical context alongside jaw-dropping analysis and images. Readers will come away with a broader understanding of Eudora Welty as a photographer whose sophisticated and modern vision still resonates today.

Lauren Rhoades is the director of grants at the Mississippi Arts Commission and a host of The Arts Hour on MPB Think Radio. She received an MFA in creative writing from the Mississippi University for Women.


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