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Let us now praise a famous man

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alabamatenantfarmer

Recognize his face? Most of us don’t know his name. 

Even 77 years on, the picture retains its immediacy. We feel as if we know him, although he usually isn’t given a name: In photography collections, on museum walls or online, the caption too often reads, “Tenant Farmer.” So let’s remember who he is, and not forget the life he — and so many others — led during the Great Depression.

He’s Floyd Burroughs, and he’s a family man from Alabama.

It’s August 1936. Photographer Walker Evans and writer James Agee live off and on with the Burroughs family in their four-room Hale County cabin while recording their lives and working on what would become “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.”

Burroughs is 31. As a half-cropper, he owns nothing. Everything is rented from the landlord. And what his family has isn’t much. The cabin is sparsely furnished. He has a single mule. They get water from the spring in the fields. Chickens roost under the cabin. Hunger haunts them.
It’s the era of FDR’s alphabet soup New Deal, but as a sharecropper, Burroughs doesn’t qualify for federal assistance. In 1935, once he gives his landlord half of his crops and pays his debts, he ends the year 12 bucks in debt.

Yet when we look at the pictures of him, his home and his family, we do not feel sorry for him. We admire him. His home is as well-swept and as neat as his gaze is direct. He has a wife and four kids, ages 20 months to 10, who look clean, combed and loved.  They and their surroundings seem dignified and, yes, elegant.

To be sure, it was a hard life. The 10-year-old, Lucille, will be married at 15 and dead by 45. She will drink rat poison to kill herself.

As New York’s Museum of Modern Art celebrates the 75th anniversary of Walker Evans’ breakthrough exhibition and the BBC takes a look at the photographer’s work and his legacy, let us now praise his subjects, the Burroughs, who never even got a copy of the book, let alone any remuneration. “It kind of left a bad taste in everybody’s mouth,” Phil Burroughs, Floyd’s grandson, told journalist David Whitford in 2005.

Lucille Burroughs, age 10 | Photos by Walker Evans

Lucille Burroughs, age 10 | Photos by Walker Evans

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