Cat 121: Photography I
November 12, 2007
Unlike most photographers of her time, Dorothea Lange holds the honor of being remembered for several genres and themes. Originally a portrait photographer in San Francisco, Lange went on to document unemployed Americans during the Depression and interred Japanese-Americans during World War II. Although the bulk of her photographic work comes from the southwest United States, she traveled the world later in life and is also well known for her images of Ireland.
Born in 1895, Lange had ample time to establish herself as a photographer before the depression of the 1930s led her to a government job and the possibility of nationwide fame. Her earliest famous image, White Angel Breadline (image: Partridge 41), also comes from her earliest attempt to venture out of her studio and document the “extraordinary thing that was happening to ordinary people” (Davidov 233-4). Soon after discovering her passion for photographing those outside of the first “truly national or ‘mass’ culture,” President Roosevelt’s Farm Security Administration (FSA) commissioned Lange to document migrant workers throughout the southwest (Miller 389).
Although the government officials Lange worked under found her difficult to get along with, she continued to travel and photograph for five years before the FSA could no longer financially support her services (Coles and Heyman 25). Driving home from one of her final trips, Lange found a pea pickers camp and shot “only a few pictures” that would become her most famous—the Migrant Mother (image: Partridge 4, quote: 5). Together with her husband Paul Taylor, Lange published American Exodus: A Record of Human Erosion, in 1939 as a document of the displacement of working Americans into the southwest.
Scholar James S. Miller reads American Exodus as a “capitalistic critique—settling ultimately upon ‘erosion’ as the fittest metaphor for the displacement, depopulation, and dispossession that industrial-capitalism was believed to have so relentlessly effected” (377). This turns Lange’s photographs into something much more powerful than other photographers had been able to do—by combining words with images and focusing on one subject, Lange (and Taylor) made took documentary study to a new level of art and practicality.
Between 1939 and 1941, Lange received several assignments from the Bureau of Agricultural Economics and earned a Guggenheim Fellowship for photographing utopian communities (Coles and Heyman 37). Both of these projects were abandoned in 1941 when the Office of War Information commissioned Lange (along with Ansel Adams) to document the Japanese interment camps in California. Most of the images Lange produced from that period were kept in vaults away from the government’s Final Report. Lange later recalled that the photographs “were not mine. I was under bond. I had to sign when I was finished, under oath, before a notary” (quoted in Davidov 227). These images, now available in the National Archives, “seem to document different events” than the Final Report, calling on viewers to question why she was asked to photograph the camps at all (Davidov 227).
After World War II Lange, now in her 50s, traveled with Paul Taylor to Latin America, Asia, and the Middle East, also stopping to complete a documentary on Ireland’s rural poor. In 1964 she published The American Country Woman, “a book that was a celebration of spirit, courage, good sense, and good humor” (Coles and Heyman 8). Shortly before her death in 1965, the Museum of Modern Art arranged an exhibition of her life’s work. Lange and museum curator John Szarkowski worked tirelessly to put her photographs together, with Lange’s worries over the public’s acceptance of her work assuaged only by her death several months before the gallery opened in 1965 (Partridge 107, 111).
Lange’s accomplishments did not end with her death, however, as proven by the popularity of her images. In addition to gracing American culture with her art, Lange changed the face of photography by venturing outside of her studio and photographing those who could, or would, not pay for the luxury of a portrait. She paved the way for documentary photographers today, traveling long hours and leaving domestic lives to tell the stories of those would can not speak to mainstream culture themselves. Aside from these contributions to the art of photography itself, Lange holds the distinction of becoming one of the first famous female photographers, proving to mothers and wives across the country that finding a balance between art and family was possible.
I originally chose Dorothea Lange to research because of her iconic images; the faces that seem to tell stories merely by peering into her lens. Lange’s “sense of her obligation and her ability to disclose and communicate the truth” seems, to me, to pour forth in her images (Davidov 228). After finding that Lange used an old (even for her day) Rolliflex camera held at the waist, I realized that the mystique of her images lies in the lens being on a lower plane than the subject’s faces (Partridge 59). This leads to the effect of her subjects seeming larger than life, in a position of being literally and figuratively looked up to. Mystery solved, Lange no longer holds quite the allure for me as before, but in understanding her techniques I am able to refine my own.
Coles, Robert, and Therese Heyman. Dorothea Lange: Photographs of a Lifetime. New York: Aperture Foundation, 1982.
Davidov, Judith Fryer. “’The Color of My Skin, the Shape of My Eyes’: Photographs of the Japanese-American Internment by Dorothea Lange, Ansel Adams, and Toyo Miyatake.” The Yale Journal of Criticism 9.2(1996): 223-244.
Miller, James S. “Inventing the ‘Found’ Object Artificiality, Folk History, and the Rise of Capitalist Ethnography in 1930s America.” Journal of American Folklore 117.466(2004): 373-393.
Partridge, Elizabeth. Restless Spirit: The Life and Work of Dorothea Lange. New York: Viking, 1998.
Dorothea Lange: A Visual Life. Ed. Elizabeth Partridge. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994.