May 26, 2011

Remembering the invaluable work of photographer Dorothea Lange

Day 146 of Vintage 365


To call Dorothea Lange's photographs incalculably meaningful pieces of world history, would scarcely begin to convey the degree of importance that this pioneering photographer's work captured for all the world to see.

Professionally trained in New York and taught by well known photographer Clarence Hudson White (other famed students of whom include Paul Outerbridge, Margaret Bourke-White and Ralph Steiner), Lange apprenticed with several photography studios before opening up her own portrait studio in 1918 on the other side of the country in San Francisco, which proved to be quite successful for her.

As the years rolled on however and the Great Depression hit the US with an intensity unlike any other economic crisis the US had ever faced, Dorothea begin venturing out of the comfortable confines of her portrait studio and on the streets, populated as they now were with a great many folks whose lives had been turned upside down my the financial nightmare America was swept up in.

Lange's honest, at times gritty, completely captivating photographic studies of unemployed, homeless and various other downtrodden people quickly caught the eye of other local photographers and was responsible for her becoming employed with the Federal Resettlement Administration.

Together with her second husband (Paul Schuster Taylor), Lange travelled across America documenting with great skill, the startling realities that so many were struggling greatly with during the Depression. From rural farmers to migrant workers, throughout the 1930s Dorothea turned her lens on many of the poorest and lest remembered (by the government of the day) people in America at the time.

Lange's haunting images, which showed men, women and children of all ages, were instantly recognized for their startlingly earnest portrayal of life for those on the out and out. They were distributed free to newspapers right across the US and quickly became some of the best known photographs of the Great Depression.

{This short two minute YouTube video shows a wonderful selection of Dorothea Lange's Depression era photographs set against a lovely tune that elegantly helps to highlight the impactful-ness of these now timeless images.}


Of all the photographs Dorothea Lange captured during her lifetime, perhaps none is as well known – nor heart wrenching - as her image "Migrant Mother", which depicts 32 year old Florence Owens Thompson and two of her children. In the image we see Florence's incredibly concerned looking face, whereas those of her two young kids are turned away from the camera as they lean sorrowfully into their mother's shoulders.

Now an icon of the era, this image perfectly captures the grief and hardship that so many endured during the 1930s. In an interview that Lange gave in 1960 she is quoted as saying of Florence, "She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food. There she sat in that lean-to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it."

And indeed, through Dorothea Lange's work there was a definitive equalizing of humankind. She didn't set out to stage life, she aimed to capture it in all its raw and brutal honesty, as though seen through the very eyes of those who lived and suffered, survived and somehow kept going during the 1930s.

For Lange, her images were never about garnering fame or fortune (as so poignantly evident by the fact the she gave up her Guggenheim Fellowship award, which she received in 1941, so that she could photograph the forced evacuation of Japanese immigrants on US soil following the attack on Pearl Harbor), she sought to preserve the hardships of time and made no bones about using a critical, bitingly realistic eye as she did so.

Today, May 26th, was the date on which in 1895 Dorothea Lange was born, and as such I wanted to stop and set aside some time to remember the life (she passed away in 1965 at the age of 70) not only of this superb documentary photographer herself, but of all those she captured on film during her career.

With a lens, Lange froze time, ensuring that both people of the day and many generations to come would have an eye-opening look at the less than glamorous side of life during the bleakest days of the mid-twentieth century.

Thank you, Dorothea, for each photograph, every life you preserved on film, every bit of history your excellent work ensured would never be forgotten. You were a gifted photographer, incredible documentary creator, and a wonderfully caring human being; the world is a better, more informed place because you were a part of it.

1 comment:

  1. Wanted you to know I posted a link to your blog today on mine.

    Nancy Ward