Lets go back to Dorothea Lange, and try to understand why her work has such an important place in the history of social photography.
In Dorothea Lange photographies we mainly find portraits she takes very carefully. We find in them a great impression of humanity and dignity very similar to the religious iconography. How not to assimilate the portraits of mothers to the Pieta ? Or her portraits of workers to crucified Christ?
D.Lange, Dichted, Stalled, Stranded, 1935
But to keep a measure of humanity, proper to touch the viewer, Dorothea Lange is particularly skilled at capturing the attention of her models. Many look strait at the camera, positioned just at the same high of their eyes, giving the impression that the models are staring at the viewer. These portraits are like mirrors. Lange doesn’t seek to highlight the poverty of these men and women but to capture a feeling that can be transposed to the viewer. See how they are similar to the people she photographs despite the difficult living conditions, poverty and the stigma of hard work.
D.Lange, Damaged Child, Oklahoma, 1936
According to Dorothea Lange, the purpose of the pictures is not so much to document but to raise awareness, cause indignation and set in motion the political machine capable of making a difference. Unlike Walker Evans, who takes objective and curious photographies of the migrant situation, Dorothea Lange seems to have a more sensitive approach of her models.
This is the sense of honesty from photography : facing a revolting situation Lange don’t hesitate to summon emotions and photograph what move her in order to move the viewer. To reach the triple humanity of the photographer, the model and the viewer, we must give honest and real photographies. She applies to be closer to the subjects she photographs without ever putting her in the first plan nor explaining why she is photographing them. The comments come afterwards, above all comes the image that stands out and is taken quickly : rarely more than ten shots are taken. Lange photographs clearly and fairly. She explains how she took her iconic picture « Migrant Mother » :
« 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 32. 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. »
The woman’s name was Florence Owens Thompson, she was an American Indian raised in the Indean territory of the Cherokee Nation.
D.Lange, Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California, 1936
If the composition of the image is unequivocal modelled on a representation of Madonna and Child, the sadness in her eyes but determined to live, gives to the photography the impression of eternal humanity. This image reminds us of the Brechtian character “Mother Courage” (even if the play was only published in 1942) as this woman seems to be carrying on her shoulders all the misery and abnegation of the world. The viewer can perceive the feeling of pain, mingled with pity and respect without even knowing the obstacles this woman and her family had to live and will have to keep on living. This is the power of documentary photography when it has a social focus. It causes empathy for the situation it exposes without changing it : there is no staging, no complicated poses, no alteration of reality. The idea is to take the subject in its environment and try in parallel to also show its singularity, capturing a small part of his humanity, so the viewer not only sees a simple photography but, the man, woman or child being photographed.
D. Lange, Woman of the High Plains, Texas Panhandle, 1938
Dorothea Lange photographies are remarkable because they fully represent the ethic in documentary photography and also create emotion, creating a very strong and intimate relationship with the viewer. Without being dramatic, her portraits are touching and « real ». Dorothea Lange work as a social photograph is almost a solidarity work with the subject she photographs. To be at their same height, with a respectful and discreet empathy :
« I think, all my decisions right along, even working in the field when I was doing documentary work, have been instinctive; and I trust my instincts. I don’t distrust them. They haven’t led me astray. It’s when I’ve made up my mind to be efficient that is when I have gone wrong. »
And who better than herself can conclude about her work ?
“To live a visual life is an enormous undertaking, practically unattainable… But I have only touched it, just touched it.”
Sources, Bibliography :
Dorothea Lange : Le Cœur et les Raisons d’une photographe, Pierre Borhan, Seuil, 2001
Dorothea Lange : photographies d’une vie, Könemann (1998)
Dorothea Lange, Mark Durden, collection Phaidon, 2006
In English, a selection
Dorothea Lange: A Photographer’s Life, Meltzer, Milton, New York: Farra Straus Giroux, 1978
Dorothea Lange: American Photographs, San Francisco: SFMOMA and Chronicle Books, 1994
Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits, Linda Gordon, W. W. Norton & Company (2010)