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.