Happy birthday to American photographer, Dorothea Lange (05/26/1895-10/11/1965)! Lange traveled the country documenting rural America after the Great Depression as part of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) project. Her most famous photograph from this time is sometimes referred to as "Migrant Mother". I am sure you have all seen this haunting image of a woman, with three of her children "framing" her. Personally, I find this image both beautiful and heart-wrenching at the same time. That image is what I consider “catching lightning in a bottle”.Read More
Happy birthday to Dorothea Lange! Yes, today is her birthday and the final post in this series celebrating Lange and her work.
The first week, we discussed Dorothea Lange’s portrait photography work, followed by her FSA work documenting migrant agricultural workers and rural America after the Depression and Dust Bowl. Last week, was an overview of her work documenting the Japanese American Internment during World War II. So, now we are moving on to the latter part of Lange’s life.
During the last two decades of her life, Dorothea Lange experienced reoccurring health issues. Many of her health problems were lasting effects of polio, but, even though Lange was in poor health, she continued to work as much as her health would allow. Her accomplishments during this period include co-founding a publishing house that produced periodicals and high-end photography books (Aperture), photo assignments for Life magazine, traveling, and teaching at the California School of Fine Arts (CSFA). During the better part of 1964-1965, Lange focused on curating a retrospective exhibit of her work at New York's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Months before the MoMA exhibit opened (January 1996), Dorothea Lange passed away from esophageal cancer on October 11, 1965.
In Linda Gordon’s book, Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits, Gordon described an assignment that Lange gave her students at CSFA, which encouraged them to use photography to answer the question, “Where do I live?” If you have listened to any of Lange’s interviews or read much about her, you know she was not asking for a pedestrian answer, but rather asking the students to explore the answer on a deeper level. Apparently, one group of students challenged Lange to accept the same assignment - to photograph where SHE lived. From this challenge came the only self-portrait Lange made. However, just like the assignment, the self-portrait was not a typical self-portrait. The resulting images were of her foot which was affected by polio at age seven. Even though her foot was twisted as the result of polio, she did not seem to let it slow her down. She still managed to scale automobiles for a better photography vantage points, as evidenced by a few images of her. She was one of the most prolific photographers in the FSA, and her images were usually the most popular with the public. I chose this Dorothea Lange quote because she certainly seemed to employ this model in her own work. She used her photography as a vehicle to affect change by shedding light on current topics and events. Did her "model" work? I would argue, that even though many of her photographs were "impounded", those photographs were recently released to the public bringing the subject to the forefront again. Her FSA work is some of the most recognized photos from that program. I would like to think that she is still affecting change decades after she originally made the images.
Dorothea Lange Photographs - Library of Congress
Photographs of an Episode That Lives in Infamy (The New York Times)
Dorothea Lange: Drawing Beauty Out of Desolation (NPR Morning Edition)
Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits (Dodho Magazine)
Dorothea Lange Biography (Biography.com)
Dorothea Lange Biography (The Art Story)
Here we are in week three already. Last week was all about Dorothea Lange’s transformation from portrait and studio work, to documentary work with the Farm Security Administration (FSA). The FSA terminated Lange January 1, 1940 and completely disbanded in 1943. Many of the FSA photographers considered their time at the FSA a highpoint of their career. This was particularly true for Lange who took her termination hard and continued to search for projects that would be like the FSA work. This week, we will discover that she used her camera to document another group of Americans whom she hoped to aid with her images. Unfortunately, her work was hindered in many ways, and many of the resulting images were impounded and stored in the National Archives. Many of these images were unknown and unseen until recently. So, let's explore her work now, shall we?
In 1942, Lange was hired to photograph the incarceration process of more than 100,000 Japanese Americans. Why? What did these Americans of Japanese ancestry do that would warrant incarceration you might ask? Well, they MIGHT be disloyal. So, your follow-up question might be: Why would Dorothea Lange want to become involved in such a project? Lange saw an opportunity to create a photographic narrative telling the story of what was happening to this group of Americans based solely on race. Ultimately, since Lange was required to provide all film, negatives, and prints; having no other access to her work, she did not see the resulting images from this work until 1964.
I find this body of work very difficult to write about without inserting my own opinion. I hope you will search and read more information about Lange’s work, as well as read about the internment of Americans during this period, because, as George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. Form your own opinion. But, from a purely artistic standpoint, you should appreciate that Dorothea Lange created classic images in less than optimal conditions. She put her Guggenheim Fellowship for excellence in photography on hold to pursue this documentary work which was not made available to the public until recently. PBS's American Masters has a documentary titled Picturing Japanese American Internment: Dorothea Langethat may be of interest.
We are in the second week of celebrating Dorothea Lange. Last week, we set the foundation of Lange’s work as a successful high-end portrait photographer. So, how did this “city-girl” evolve into a documentary photographer best known for documentation of rural America, agriculture, agriculture workers, and their hardships? Hold on to your virtual hats because Lange is taking us on a ride documenting rural America.
Perhaps a family “time-out” played a pivotal role in Lange's shift to documentary photography. Lange, husband (Maynard Dixon), and their two sons relocated to New Mexico for a period of time in the 1920’s to take refuge from the Depression. During her time in New Mexico, Lange photographed many of the residents and, when they returned to San Francisco, it seems her focus had shifted from portrait photography to what might be termed “street photography”. (See: “The White Angel Breadline” (1933)) Lange began to use her camera as a tool to document and affect social change. Before long, her portrait experience also became apparent in the way in which she captured the people she was photographing. Her humanization of these people set her apart and people began to notice her documentary work. One person who noticed her work was Paul Taylor, Professor of Economics at the University of California. Eventually, Lange and Taylor married and set about the rural areas as a team for the federal Resettlement Administration (RA) documenting rural poverty, exploitation of agricultural workers, as well as the changing landscape of agriculture. The RA latter became known as the Farm Security Administration (FSA), and although Lange was hired as “typist” because that was the only job available for her at the time, her images became popular RA/FSA images which were shared with the media. Among the more popular images is Lange’s “Migrant Mother” pictured above. This image has always captivated me. It captures the subject, Florence Owens Thompson, so beautifully. To me, it conveys her strength and beauty. Yes, strength and beauty become redundant in this instance.
I hope you will take a minute to really look at this image. Look at the tight crop of the subject, yet all the information that is contained in the canvas predominantly filled with the subject. We see her worried face. We see three children "framing" her in a sort of triangle, which is symbolic of strength. I was so captivated the first few times I saw this image, I almost missed the sleeping infant in her lap. Oh my goodness! You have empathy for what this woman and her family are experiencing, but OH! what an image. This picture is truly worth a thousand words - or a thousand adjectives at least. I would love to hear what you see in this image, so please comment and share.
During the month of May, I will be adding posts about American Photographer, Dorothea Lange (May 26, 1895 – October 11, 1965). Lange is known as one of the preeminent documentary photographers of the 20th century. Lange’s images are some of the best known, most recognizable images of the 20th century. And, even though viewers recognize the images, they may not know the artist’s name who is responsible for the images, or anything about her. I recently read Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits by Linda Gordon. The Dorothea Lange biography provided some insight into who Dorothea Lange was as a woman, a wife, a mother, an artist, a photographer, and a business woman. But, let’s start at the beginning. Shall we?
Dorothea Nutzhorn was born on May 26, 1895, in Hoboken, New Jersey. There were two pivotal events in her early childhood that played a large part in shaping her life. The first was contracting polio at the age of 7 which left her right leg and foot weak and twisted. The second event was the divorce of her parents when Lange was a teen. The divorce had such an effect on her that she eventually changed her last name to Lange; her mother’s maiden name.
As a young woman, Lange and a friend decided to travel and go on an adventure. Unfortunately, their first stop was San Francisco where all their funds were stolen. Apparently, Lange did not let this color her new adventure. She was resourceful and called upon her experience with photography to opened a portrait studio in San Francisco. While circumstance changed her plans, over time, Lange managed to build a very successful upscale portrait studio. Her studio also became a gathering place for artists and wealthy patrons in the San Francisco community. One of those artists, was the renowned painter, Maynard Dixon. Eventually, Lange and Dixon married and had two children. Lange’s studio work became the primary income for her family.
So how did this successful business woman, running an upscale portrait studio which catered to the wealthy, high cultured San Francisco crowd come to photograph the rural environs and people after the Great Depression? Oh my, let’s discuss it next week. But until then, just ponder what she accomplished in an era when women were not encouraged to be entrepreneurs, artists, or adventure seekers.