The Mississippi Delta

In the mind of America, no area of the country probably better represents the South than the Mississippi Delta, and it is from just this area that many of the FSA's most prominent photographers chose to mold an understanding of a Southern culture that for better and for worse seemed to be vanishing. With the thirties came not only the depression that would rock many Mississippi farms and displace countless workers but the advent of a national culture in which the Magnolia State would struggle to negotiate an identity. The photography of Lange, Evans, and Wolcott helped with this transition.

Lange's famous picture of the plantation owner was discussed in some detail earlier, but its importance in the context of Mississippi regionalism is again worth stressing. The imposing stance of the plantation owner seems a projection of his powerful; he dwarfs his nearby black workers in the photo and in real life (Puckett 50). Lange's dramatization of this phenomenon marks not just an artistic triumph but a resonating indictment against the failure of the deep South to squelch the lingering ghost of slavery. Lange, Stryker, and others in the FSA refuse to crop out the unpleasant part of the photograph like MacLeish did and challenge Mississippi and the nation to address a problem that would have to be reconciled for the state to gain a place in the budding national culture.

Evans and the FSA sound a more somber note in the photograph of the railroad station at the right. While Stryker's FSA called America to move out of the cultural hold of slavery, not all of the past was worth forgetting, or even changing. Small town life, it seemed, was disappearing forever, and as the once quiet Mississippi streets filled up with noisy cars and tall buildings, Stryker became mournful. He remarked upon Evans' photo above:
I remember Walker Evans' picture of the train tracks in a small town, like Montrose [his hometown in Colorado]. The empty station platform, the station thermometer, the idle baggage cars, the quiet stores, the people talking together, and beyond them, the weather-beaten houses where they lived, all this reminded me of the town where I had grown up. I would look at pictures like that and long for a time when the world was safer and more peaceful. I'd think back to the days before radio and television when all there was to do was go down to the tracks and watch the flyer go through. That was the nostalgic way in which those town pictures hit me (qtd. in Brannan & Fleischhauer 59).

Railroad station, Walker Evans, Edwards, Mississippi.

Picking cotton, Marion Post Wolcott, Mileston Plantation, Mississippi
Delta, Mississippi.
The photographs of the FSA defy easy classification, as we are again reminded by Wolcott's photograph to the left. One of the most repeated--and moving--images in the FSA file is a close-up view of beaten workers' hands. In providing a photograph of a Mississippi cotton-picker, Wolcott adds a particularly haunting image. Like many in the collection, the photograph features a certain timelessness. It could have come from any age, and much of its resonance comes from how closely associated it is with Mississippi's slavery past. The image of the cotton picker is not accidental but carries with it an almost unrivaled amount of cultural capital. Not much, the weather-beaten hands remind the viewer, has changed in the past 70 years for Mississippi blacks. What, they demand, are you going to do?

The particular sub-regional identity of the three pictures on this page complements the three areas previously discussed, as the unique local environment outlined by each create some sort of composite image of the region known as the South. But how, if at all, does the diverse array of images combine to form a coherent whole? Furthermore, how do these images team with those of the Midwest migrant worker and the Northern laborer to produce any kind of true American? The answer is simpler than you might imagine.

Intro Stryker and the FSA Documentary Photography as a Medium Local vs. National Blue Ridge Mountains Southern Florida Central Alabama Mississippi Delta Conclusion

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Maintained by Pat Brady
Last Modified: May 10, 1999