In January 1935, Dorothea Lange reinvented documentary photography. Best known for the iconic images that she made as a photographer for the federal government’s Farm Security Administration[FSA], Lange made her conceptual breakthrough a little bit earlier, while working for California’s Emergency Relief Administration [SERA].
Paul Taylor, an economist and SERA field director, had hired her to photograph the living conditions of the state’s agricultural laborers. The Depression, Dust Bowl conditions in the midwest, and the decline of tenant farming and sharecropping in the South had left millions of American families both jobless and homeless. Without resources, they had become wanderers, living in hovels and searching for work. Many had come to California.
Dorothea Lange: A mother in California who with her husband and her two children will be returned to Oklahoma by the Relief Administration. This family had lost a two-year-old baby during the winter as a result of exposure. Imperial County, California, 1937. (All photos are courtesy of the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information collection at the Library of Congress.)
As Anne Whiston Spirn shows, in Daring to Look: Dorothea Lange’s Photographs and Reports from the Field, Taylor hired Lange because he believed that "words alone could not convey" the stark reality of farm workers lives, and he wanted his department’s reports to have the maximum possible impact.
In Lange, Taylor had found the perfect partner. (They would soon fall in love and marry.) She quickly came to agree with Taylor that words and images could, in her words, "enhance and fortify" each other, creating a whole that was stronger than either part alone. While photos are very good at describing things, at showing what they look like--for instance, the circumstances in which people live and work--they are very bad at explaining how things got to be that way. Lange wanted her documentary work to be part of the solution to the crisis that the nation faced. In order to do that, she understood that it would have to describe and to explain, to show and to tell.
Dorothea Lange: Daughter of migrant Tennessee coal miner. Living in American River camp near Sacramento, California, 1936. (Click directly on any of these photos to see larger versions.)
Spirn argues that "Lange’s photographs and her field notes provided the raw material for a new sort of government report: essays comprising photographs with handwritten captions, many with quotations from the people she photographed." The reports had a powerful effect within SERA and eventually at the national level, as well.
Rexford Tugwell, director of the federal government’s Resettlement Administration [RA], which had been created to assist displaced farmers and sharecroppers, was "extremely impressed" by Lange’s work in California. When he asked Roy Stryker to set up a photography unit for the RA, Lange’s work was the model that he had in mind. (This unit, the Historical Section, became the home of the FSA documentary project after its transfer to that agency.) Ben Shahn, another RA/FSA photographer, remembered seeing Lange’s reports for the first time. "It was a revelation," he said, "what this woman was doing." Stryker was impressed, too. After seeing the reports, he changed the Historical Section's "whole direction," and very much for the better, Shahn believed.
Dorothea Lange: Washington, Yakima Valley, near Wapato. One of Chris Adolf's younger children. Farm Security Administration Rehabilitation clients. August 1939.
The beauty and complexity of Lange’s photos are undeniable, and they’ve long been recognized as art. The best of her photos seem to make emotion tangible. She convinces us that we feel what her subjects feel and experience what they experience--that we know them in some very personal way. No one has ever used small gestures more effectively to reveal character and emotion--the tilt of the head, the angle of the body, the position of the hands--they all tell a story. Yes, she sometimes posed her subjects (as in the photo of Chris Adolf, below). But she rarely, if ever, simply imposed herself on her subjects. She spent time with them, talked with them, and got to know them. She created relationships with them. Her images were, in fact, collaborations between the photographer and the subject. It’s precisely this which accounts for the unselfconscious way in which so many of her subjects present themselves to her camera.
Dorothea Lange: Washington, Yakima Valley, near Wapato. Rural rehabilitation client (Farm Security Administration). Portrait of Chris Adolf [father of the little girl in the photo above]. "My father made me work. That was his mistake, he made me work too hard. I learned about farming but nothing out of the books." August 1939.
Spirn again: "To divide the visual from the verbal [however]... is to miss the whole that it represents." Lange’s words blended social science with reportage, information drawn from academic studies and government reports with the voices of the people in her photos. "[Her] words and images... are more than documentary records; they are an art form."
The words sometimes change the way that a photo looks. At first glance, this heroic portrait of Chris Adolf strikes us as a something of an FSA cliche. But seen as Lange intended it to be seen--in conjunction with her extended General Caption for the series of photos that she made of the Adolf family--it becomes more interesting and less hackneyed:
General Caption 28:
Date: August 10, 1939.
Place: Yakima Valley, near Wapato, Washington
Subject: Rural rehabilitation, F.S.A.
Name of client, Chris Adolf. Amount of loan, $2,138. 80 acres of Indian land, on three year lease.
Came to Yakima Valley in 1937 from Bethune, Kit Carson County, Colorado. He owned his own farm there and he had lived there all his life. Drought forced him out with his wife and 8 children. His wife had been a school teacher. "I'd like to go back. I was born and raised there and it was hard to leave, but my wife and my children don't want to go back."
"I've broke thousands of acres of sod. The dust got so bad that we had to sleep with wet clothes over our faces."
All 8 children live at home, all work on the farm, and the family are making a good start.
Dorothea Lange: Young mother, twenty five, says "Next year we'll be painted and have a lawn and flowers." Rural shacktown, near Klamath Falls, Oregon. September 1939.
Another wonderful photo. The mother’s grace within the rough conditions that surround her keeps us from seeing this as a photograph of misery. Her words, even in the short caption, reinforce her body language.
I’ll again quote Lange’s General Caption. It tells us almost as much about her working methods as it does about the family that is her subject:
General Caption 47:
Date: August 23 and September 29, 1939.
Place: Near Klamath Falls, Altamont District, Klamath County, Oregon.
Subject: To show process of resettlement in the West.
Photographs were made in fast growing rural shacktown. The home was photographed on August 23 and revisited six weeks later. In that time the family had dismantled the tent and were living in a nearly completed self-built, one room house.
Family consists of husband, wife, two small children, and husband's brother. They came originally from Oklahoma to Oregon. Father works on WPA. Paid $10.00 down for the land. Pay $5.00 a month out of WPA earnings.
Father: "We build as we can, to get away from rent and get something for what we pay out."
Mother: "First we had the tent on the ground. Then we moved it up on the floor, when we got it down. We didn't take the tent down 'til we had a roof over it."
Mother: "Next year we'll be painted and have a lawn and flowers. We'll put our driveway over there where those beans are. We've got rabbits now and we'll get some chickens as soon as we can. We think we're doing swell."
Just as Lange knew that words and images can powerfully strengthen each other, she also understood that there is no dichotomy between art and documentary. The fact that her photos are art enriches our experience of seeing them. We know more about her subjects because of--not despite of--their beauty.
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