Reading Group / “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” with Freya Field-Donovan, Alexandra Symons Sutcliffe, Carolina Ongaro, and Kat Black

Date: Thursday, 11 July 2019, 7–9 pm
Location: Cabinet, Ebersstrasse 3, Berlin (map and directions here)
Limited space. RSVP in advance.
Facebook Event

“Who are you who will read these words and study these photographs, and through what cause, by what chance, and for what purpose, and by what right do you qualify to, and what will you do about it.”
— James Agee, “Preamble,” Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, 1936

Cabinet is pleased to host a collective reading and discussion group focused on James Agee and Walker Evans’s 1941 photo book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Evans’s photographs of 1930s tenant farmers in Hale County, Alabama, are some of the most iconic American portraits of the twentieth century, and have molded both the practice of photojournalism and the discourse on the representation of poverty. The photographs, however, were never intended as stand-alone representations; they were part of a book project comprising thirty-one uncaptioned images by Evans and some five hundred pages of prose by Agee. This evening of reading and looking takes the book as its object of inquiry and poses questions about access and understanding, performativity within graphic representation, and how past contexts can be brought to bear on our present political climate.

In 1936, James Agee and Walker Evans were commissioned by Fortune magazine to travel to Hale County to document the lives of three tenant farming families whose livelihoods had been decimated by drought and the Great Depression. Ultimately, Fortune declined to publish the dense and unwieldy document Agee and Evans produced. It was not until 1941 that the material was collated and published as Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. The first edition received little acclaim, but in 1960, with Evans’s work now part of the canon, a second edition was published with an additional thirty-one images, and this time it reached a wide and engaged audience.

The belatedness that marks the history of the book’s publication and reception informs the slow and recursive mode of reading and discussion at this event, where we will discuss how truth claims and truth procedures function, and address documentary photography as a historically defined technology. At the session, we will take turns reading aloud; the images will be passed around and the document re-shuffled, in order to generate questions, for each other and for the text. No prior knowledge of the history of the book is required and we invite anyone with an interest in portraiture, the documentary tradition, and the project of democracy in the United States to attend. The session, which will last approximately two hours, will be intimate and convivial; drinks and snacks will be served.

The Let Us Now Praise Famous Men research and reading group was initiated in 2018 by art historian Freya Field-Donovan and curator Alexandra Symons Sutcliffe, with the valuable support of London gallery Jupiter Woods. This session will be co-led by Field-Donovan, Symons Sutcliffe, Carolina Ongaro, and Kat Black.