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Dorothea Lange - Luke McGuff

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August 30th, 2010


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07:20 pm - Dorothea Lange
Dorothea Lange: American Photographs, with essays by Sandra S. Phillips, John Szarkowski, and Therese Thau Heyman
Impounded: Dorothea Lange and the Censored Images of Japanese American Internment edited by Linda Gordon and Gary Y. Okihiro
Dorothea Lange: The Heart and Mind of a Photographer by Pierre Borhan, with essays by A.D. Coleman, Ralph Gibson, and Sam Stourdze

You've seen work by Dorothea Lange, even if you don't recognize the name immediately.

She was born in 1895. At 7, she had polio, which left her with a lifelong limp. At 12, her father abandoned her family. At 18, she said she wanted to be a photographer before she'd even picked up a camera. At 19, she apprenticed herself to New York photographers, and took some classes with, among others, Clarence H. White. At 22, she set off on a round-the-world trip with a girlfriend, but they got robbed in San Francisco. She lived in the Bay Area the rest her life.

She got a job in a processing lab, but soon set up her own studio, doing portraits of San Francisco's well heeled and Bohemians. Her work from this period is not particularly memorable. In the early 1930s, her studio work fell off, and she took to the streets to photograph the people she found there. Her accounts of this decision vary. She said sometimes that seeing the people on the streets from her studio window, during the early days of the depression, compelled her to leave the studio. In other interviews, she said that during a thunderstorm, the idea came to her that she should work only with people, whether they could pay or not.

Some of the early photographs were seen by Paul Taylor, an economist studying land-use and farm migration issues. He was apt to use snapshots to illustrate his work, as much as tables and graphs. When he was hired by the government, he asked that Dorothea Lange also be hired as the photographer. This lead to the most fruitful collaboration of either career. She was soon hired by the Farm Services Administration, and spent months at a stretch driving around California and the west, documenting the plight of the displaced farmer and migrant worker.

All of her best known work stems from the years she worked for the FSA, circa 1935-1939. This is where the interpersonal skills she developed as a portraitist came to the fore. Her work is much more personal and connected to the subject than that of the other FSA photographers.


Migratory Cotton Picker, Eloy, Arizona, 1940. Resting at cotton wagon before returning to work in the field. He has been picking cotton all day.
A good picker earns about two dollars a day working, at this time of the year, about ten hours.



A Child and Her Mother, FSA Clients. Yakima Valley, near Wapato, Washington, August, 1939


Daughter of migrant Tennessee coal miner. Living in American River camp near Sacramento, California

Migrant Mother almost didn't happen. When Lange took those pictures, she was returning from a month in the field. She said that she drove past the camp at first, but something compelled her to return. The publication of Migrant Mother electrified the country, and lead to an outpouring of aid. And it is a very compelling image.


Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California

The children close, but turned away shyly. The concern and the hand raised to her face. The closeness of the framing, so that everything else is removed but this very moment. This was the final of six frames shot by Lange, a process that with her equipment (a 4x5 Graflex) would have taken several minutes. It has echoes of Christian madonna and child imagery.

The strength of the image is part of why it's remembered so well today, and still used as an icon of poverty and survival. It's one of the most famous (if not the most famous) photographs of the 20th century.

Of three books, Impounded has the best writing, and The Heart and Mind has the best photographic reproduction, spanning all of her career.

The two essays in Impounded concern Lange's documentation of the internment, and the internment itself. It was more horrific than I realized. Whatever standing the people had, whatever generation they were (fourth, fifth, and more), however much money or property they had or business they owned -- it was all stolen from them. The theft amounted to several billion dollars in today's money. Lange spent months working on the documentation, driving all around California, up into Washington and Oregon. The same empathy that connected her to the displaced farmworkers connected her to the internees. That's why the photos were never published during the war.

The Heart and Mind has photos from her early portrait studio days, through the depression era for which she is most famous, and up into the late 50s. There was a period of about ten years she was unable to work due to illness, but in the late 1950s she traveled with Paul Taylor to Vietnam, SE Asia, Ireland, and other places. These photos, too, show the same depth of connection to her subject as all her photography does. I also liked the essay by A.D. Coleman, "Dust in the Wind: The Legacy of Dorothea Lange and Paul Schuster Taylor's An American Exodus," in which he makes the claim that the design and content of An American Exodus presages the way information is presented on the web, and that photographers and designers could do well to read it today.

(23 comments | Leave a comment)

Comments:


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From:kalimac
Date:August 31st, 2010 02:22 am (UTC)
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The first I heard of Dorothea Lange, I parsed the spoken name as Dorothy Alange. Then when I mentioned this famous photographer Alange, people whom I'd thought would have heard of her looked at me in puzzlement.
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From:holyoutlaw
Date:August 31st, 2010 02:27 am (UTC)
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Reader's pronunciation strikes again!

(You know, like saying "mizzled" for "misled.")
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From:kalimac
Date:August 31st, 2010 02:35 am (UTC)
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Uh, no. More the opposite. If I'd seen the name written, I'd have gotten it right. I had only heard it spoken.

But once I did learn it right, I never forgot her, and have often seen and noted her work.

Anyway, this is a great review, both nicely evaluating the books in question and explaining the subject's significance. Good job.
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From:holyoutlaw
Date:August 31st, 2010 04:09 am (UTC)
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ooopsla, you're right.

And thanks for the good words. ;>
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[User Picture]
From:kalimac
Date:August 31st, 2010 03:35 am (UTC)
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[User Picture]
From:holyoutlaw
Date:August 31st, 2010 04:09 am (UTC)
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I don't make this quite clear, but the army suppressed her photos of the internment because even with the controlled access, they were quite damning. The whole thing was racist (Italians and Germans were not interred).

During her FSA years, she did photograph minorities more than other FSA photographers, but those photos weren't used during the depression as much as photos of white people were.

After her work for the War Relocation Authority, she worked for the Office of War Information. This job was specifically to photograph minorities. Here's the relevant paragraph from The Heart and Mind of a Photographer:
Following her involvement with this regrettable episode in American history, Lange spent 1943 and 1944 photographing ethnic minorities for the Office of War Information (OWI). The agency published her images in magazines (such as Victory) that were sent to Europe and North Africa in advance of the arrival of US troops. This was part of OWI's campaign to raise consciousness in those parts of the world of the ills of totalitarianism, by pointing to the vastly superior living conditions of Italians, Spanish, Yugoslavians, and other immigrants ettled int the United States. Lange had to work under military surveillance, but this time she felt the cause was just. The majority of these negatives were lost.

—"The Destiny of a Strong-Willed Woman" by Pierre Borhan, in Dorothea Lange: The Heart and Mind ofa Photographer, p. 251


Unfortunately, Borhan doesn't give a citation for his statement about the OWI, and the Wikipedia biography of Lange doesn't mention it (for what that's worth).
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From:trinker
Date:August 31st, 2010 06:32 am (UTC)
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I'm starting to tear up seeing you say that. I grew up with a lot of people who either didn't know any better, or had vested interests in pretending that it was justified. Michele Malkin is on my permanent list of infamy for continually suggesting that the internment was a good thing.
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From:(Anonymous)
Date:August 31st, 2010 04:09 pm (UTC)
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Your opinion is...there's a sharp divide between people who share your opinion, and people who were just waiting for the Tea Party to call for their participation.

I grew up around the Jewish community in L.A., and I remember contrasting the internment camps and the Holocaust, and being told by some that it just proved how kind, just and honorable the U.S. was. Except that I knew in my heart of hearts that as much as mass murder is definitely another thing altogether, the internment was a gross miscarriage of justice at best, and utterly revelatory of the strong nativist streak in American history.

Michele Malkin is Filipina, as far as I know. There's a strong resentment of Japanese stemming from their actions during WWII; the problem is that she projects that onto the Americans of Japanese descent. I have no problem calling her a racist.
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From:trinker
Date:August 31st, 2010 04:11 pm (UTC)
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Sorry, that was me. Didn't realize I wasn't logged in.
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From:trinker
Date:August 31st, 2010 03:33 am (UTC)
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Luke, before seeing the exhibit, what was your sense of the Japanese American internment?
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From:holyoutlaw
Date:August 31st, 2010 03:48 am (UTC)
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I knew it had happened, but not the depth of it. The property theft, the disruption of careers, the "one drop of blood" rule (ie, even if someone had "one drop" of Japanese blood, they were interred).

It wasn't taught in any history class I took in grade school or high school.

Impounded is a book, not an exhibit, although there was an exhibit called "Executive Order 9066."
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From:trinker
Date:August 31st, 2010 06:27 am (UTC)
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I used to do all my history papers (as much as possible) on the internment, because it was so badly taught in the textbooks. A lot of people still don't know that Japanese (and some other immigrant groups) were barred from naturalization - all those "enemy aliens" were prevented from becoming citizens and proving their loyalties.

People who want to overturn the 14th make me so very, very angry.
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From:duccio
Date:August 31st, 2010 02:33 pm (UTC)
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Your Migrant Mother picture is an early print done before Lange edited out the thumb in the lower right corner.




[User Picture]
From:holyoutlaw
Date:August 31st, 2010 07:35 pm (UTC)
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I didn't notice it until a while after posting, otherwise I'd have mentioned it -- I think I got the image I used from the Library of Congress.

When I noticed the thumb, I thought, huh, it is distracting.
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From:randy_byers
Date:August 31st, 2010 03:42 pm (UTC)
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I didn't know she had photographed the internment camps too. Still not something that polite society wants to talk about, I guess. Thanks for this very interesting post. My niece might enjoy these books.
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From:trinker
Date:August 31st, 2010 04:17 pm (UTC)
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Oh! I remember her pictures of the internment process as some of her most famous. But that might be heavily influenced by both personal interest, and being in Los Angeles, where some of her work has been featured prominently.

There's a photo of a little girl, with a large tag strung onto her winter coat, that just breaks my heart every time I see it.
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From:randy_byers
Date:August 31st, 2010 04:37 pm (UTC)
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It's entirely possible that I've seen some of the photos and just didn't realize it was Lange.
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From:trinker
Date:August 31st, 2010 05:26 pm (UTC)
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*nod* She was a big hero to me as a kid, because she'd helped make the internment visible and real for the future.
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From:holyoutlaw
Date:August 31st, 2010 07:37 pm (UTC)
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She very well might.

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