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Tuesday, November 22, 2022


My piece on the not-so-planted alarm clock in the Walker Evans photo is up on AD Coleman's blog. Long-time readers will have seen one or more variations on this piece here, over the years, but I finally got around to writing it up with footnotes and no swearing, and AD generously published it for me.

Read it here: Photocritic: The Case of the Appropriate Alarm Clock

I hope this puts the issue to bed, at least for me.


  1. You conclude that the Burroughs did own the alarm clock; but in his note Mr.Coleman expresses wonder that they would need to tell the time at all, except to get to church on time. He is making them out to be simple peasant folk; I prefer the respect you show them.
    In fact, as I now look at the pictures in my LOC catalog of Evans' FSA work, it looks to me that the Burroughs are perhaps a little better off than the Tenges and Fields, the other two families he photographed. In one picture it even looks like Mr. Burroughs' overalls are new.
    What about a radio? I don't see one, but maybe somebody nearby did have one. A clock is handy then.

    1. This unpacks more or less endlessly, as you can dig up detail for quite a while.

      All the families, at the moment that Evans and Agee were visiting, were more or less at an economic nadir. They had all come from more prosperous times, and would return to more prosperity over the next few years. Presumably the clocks were from those better times, which explains why they seem a little pricey to Morris.

      Also, in wintertime the men tended to get actual jobs, which required meeting transportation to job sites, and so on. I dare say they took a little more effort getting the clocks right-ish, and used the alarm function, at those times of the year. Agee is incredibly patronizing, albeit in a generous and affectionate way, in the way he writes all these stuff.

      He seems to genuinely think all the women, including some quite young ones, want to sleep with him. This is borderline gross at a few moments. He talks about them all as "innocent of any time except the sun's" as if they were hairless raccoons or something, even though he knows perfectly well they hold normal jobs in the winter, and so on. Agee was a very posh fellow, and quite drunk, and it was the 1930s, so I suppose we can chalk it up to the times. Nevertheless, this is a an affluent yankee who is consciously slumming with people he struggled to see as proper humans at all.

      Evans' photos strike me as un-self-consciously empathetic, whereas Agee is clearly both struggling and rather pleased with how well he's doing, which isn't a great look. Every time I read the book I remember how much I dislike Agee.

  2. Nicely done, and case closed, without any diagrams, fancy imaginings, or swearing. But see how that pesky "punctum" sneaks back in at every opportunity... Straightening *that* one out is going to take a lot more effort.


  3. What I find most remarkable are the acres of verbiage (several books and counting), that have sprung up around this goddamt alarm clock. Why, why, why?

    1. Is there more than Curtis and Morris out there that cite this stupid factoid?