Friday, September 5, 2014

Dorothea Lange on PBS

Dorothea Lange's career as a photographer was the subject of a recent episode of the PBS series American Masters, entitled Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning

You can see the show in its entirety as well as learn a great deal more about Dorothea Lange by going here, to the American Masters website. 

Made by Lange's granddaughter (and award-winning documentary film maker) Dyanna Taylor, this is a powerful and compelling documentary film, 

Taylor covers the full range of Lange's career, from her early days as a portrait photographer, to her Depression-era photojournalism and her work for Roy Stryker and the FSA, to her later work documenting the Japanese internment camps during World War II and her environmental photography documenting the impact of industrializaation and dam construction on people and the land.  

Lange is best-known for her work made in the American Southwest and on the West Coast (Her most famous image Migrant Mother was made in California), but, as Taylor points out, she made frequent trips to the American South.

Lange's work in the South documents the lives -- and living conditions -- of working class Southerners during the Depression, as well as the power relations in which their lives were immersed (see image above, of a plantation overseer and some of his employees, made in the Mississippi Delta in 1936).

One of the things I learned from Taylor's film about her grandmother was that she was deeply concerned to make sure she enabled us to hear the voices of her subjects as well as to see their faces. 

The book she did with her second husband Paul Taylor -- American Exodus -- is as full of quotations from her subjects as it is with her photographs. 

I think there is a profound lesson here for all of us who make photographs of people different from ourselves -- different in terms of class, race, gender, or any of the many ways people can be thought different -- especially when -- as I suspect is the case for most of us -- we expect to be showing our images to people who are likely to be more like us than like our subjects.  

People different from us are not there to help us make our careers, or to help us solve our personal problems, or to provide us or our kind with the experience of observing the different or the exotic or the other. 

We are in fact at their service, and carry with us the responsibility to accord them the dignity and respect we all deserve, and perhaps to help them communicate their value, our common value, as human beings. That's a challenge we as photographers in the American South all face.

One of the really amazing things about the way the FSA worked, back in the 1930's, is that the enormous body of work Lange made in that time, and that Walker Evans, and Marion Post Wolcott, and all the other photographers who worked for Roy Stryker and the FSA made in that time, were done on contract to the federal government.

That means their work -- brilliant work, work that defines photography as both craft and vocation and art -- is our common possession. Its all stored in the Library of Congress, which has digitized it all, and made it available to us.

So if you go here -- to the Prints and Photographs Online Catalogue -- you can find all their work, all those iconic and still deeply compelling images. 
In Taylor's film, we hear Florence Thompson, the woman in Lange's image, express her unhappiness at becoming the icon of the Great Depression to millions of Americans. She is understandably upset that she never made any money out of it. To which Lange replied, "I didn't either."

And that's true, but great art, of the unique and distinctive kind represented by Migrant Mother, is probably best held as our common property. 

If you look around on the Library of Congress' website, for example, you will find the original negative of Lange's Migrant Mother digitized, and downloadable in a 56 MB tiff file (that's a 1800 dpi scan of the negative, which translates into a 23 x 28 inch print at 300 dpi). 

Which means, you can make your own print of Migrant Mother, probably larger, and sharper, and cleaner than Lange herself ever saw it.

You need to see Taylor's film -- an inspiration, a challenge, a warning, a compelling demonstration of the power of art, and of photography -- Dorothea Lange. 

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