December 18, 1989 12:00 PM

by Eudora Welty

Welty, the novelist best known for her gentle stories of America’s South, says she just “stumbled” into taking pictures, but these memorable photos show that she possessed a good eye and sure hand as a photographer.

The pictures in the book date back to when Welty, fresh out of college in the mid-’30s, got a job as a junior publicist with the then-controversial WPA (Works Progress Administration), a federal agency organized to create jobs for the unemployed. Armed with a Rolleiflex camera, she traveled the country’s back roads in an old Ford, reporting on the people who were somehow making ends meet during the Depression—teachers, merchants, quilt-makers, farmers. She writes in her accompanying notes, “I just spoke to persons on the street and said, ‘Do you mind if I take your picture?’ ”

While she journeyed widely, her Southern portraits remain the most compelling of her photographs. Raised in Jackson, Miss., she captured her subjects with the ease of one who was part of the family. Less than 75 years from slavery and 30 years before the Civil Rights movement, both the blacks and whites Welty portrays in these pictures seemed to be trapped in a separate but equal existence made easier by the fact that in the 1930s almost everyone was poor. Welty’s portraits uncovered dignity and even joy in these hard years.

“I was taking photographs of human beings because they were real life and they were there in front of me and that was the reality,” she says. As she did in her writing, she remained nonpolitical and socially neutral. Welty recently said that it was not her wish to “point the finger in judgment but to part a curtain.”

This photographic collection spans some 20 years of Welty’s remarkable life In an incident that could well have been the denouement of one of her own stories, she lost her camera on a train during the 1950s and never replaced it. (University Press of Mississippi, $49.95)

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