Monday, May 26, 2014
Homage to Dorothea Lange
Born May 26, 1895. Dorothea Lange was an influential American documentary photographer and photojournalist, best known for her Depression-era work for the Farm Security Administration (FSA). Lange's photographs humanized the tragic consequences of the Great Depression and profoundly influenced the development of documentary photography. She, along with Margaret Bourke-White, was another one of my spiritual "mothers," showing strength, courage and compassion in the face of suffering.
Of her work during this era Lange said: “The good photograph is not the object, the consequences of the photograph are the objects. So that no one would say, ’how did you do it, where did you find it,´ but they would say that such things could be.”
Linda Gordon, who wrote a book on the renowned photographer called Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits, recalls one of Lange's favorite sayings: A camera is a tool for learning how to see without a camera .
Dorothea Lange was named Dorothea Margaretta Nutzhorn at birth. She dropped her middle name and assumed her mother's maiden name after her father abandoned the family when she was 12 years old, one of two traumatic incidents early in her life.
The other was her contraction of polio at age seven which left her with a weakened right leg and a permanent limp."It formed me, guided me, instructed me, helped me and humiliated me," Lange once said of her altered gait. "I've never gotten over it, and I am aware of the force and power of it."
From 1935 to 1939, Dorothea Lange's work for the RA and FSA brought the plight of the poor and forgotten — particularly sharecroppers, displaced farm families, and migrant workers — to public attention. Distributed free to newspapers across the country, her poignant and compassionate images became icons of the era.
In 1960, Lange spoke about her experience taking the photograph:
"I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet. I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her, but I do remember she asked me no questions. I made five exposures, working closer and closer from the same direction. I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was thirty-two. 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."
Lange informed the authorities about the grim conditions in the camp and they raced to provide food and medical care to prevent mass starvation. (a sad comparison with today's tea blobbers and GOP and their lack of true compassion).
To capture the spirit of the camps, Lange created images that frequently juxtapose signs of human courage and dignity with physical evidence of the indignities of incarceration. Not surprisingly, many of Lange's photographs were censored by the federal government, itself conflicted by the existence of the camps.
In 1941, Lange was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for excellence in photography. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, she gave up the prestigious award to record the forced evacuation of Japanese Americans to relocation camps, on assignment for the War Relocation Authority (WRA). Her images were so obviously critical that the Army impounded them.
The true impact of Lange's work was not felt until 1972, when the Whitney Museum incorporated twenty-seven of her photographs into Executive Order 9066, an exhibit about the Japanese internment. New York Times critic A.D. Coleman called Lange's photographs "documents of such a high order that they convey the feelings of the victims as well as the facts of the crime."
In the last two decades of her life, Lange's health was poor. She suffered from gastric problems, including bleeding ulcers, as well as post-polio syndrome — although this renewal of the pain and weakness of polio was not yet recognized by most physicians. Lange died of esophageal cancer on October 11, 1965 in San Francisco, California at age 70. She was survived by her second husband, Paul Taylor, two children, three stepchildren, and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Her artistic and spiritual legacy still speaks to those who would look upon suffering, political injustice and cruelty with compassion and the courage to speak out for change.