Click on photos to enlarge.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Dorothea Lange

Toward Los Angeles, California, March 1937. On the road with Dorothea Lange.
Dorothea Lange, 1935-39
Although I don't often write about photographers (not as often as I should, anyway), for several years I've admired the work of Dorothea Lange and wanted to do a piece on her. So, I started collecting examples of her work. These are not the best of her work because virtually all of her high resolution nitrate negatives, very carefully composed, flawlessly lit, deeply touching works can be so labeled. These are the ones which touched me. You won't find her 1936 Migrant Mother among them. There would be no need. It's probably the most iconic photographic image of the entire Depression era, perhaps even of the entire 20th century. It has literally become the face of the 1930s. You will find several other migrant mothers...migrant fathers too, and perhaps most tragic, migrant children scarred for life, but also tempered by the desperation of the times, for the rest of their lives--survivors.
August 1936. Sallisaw, Oklahoma. Sequoyah County drought farmers. "Nothing to do," said one of them. "These fellers are goin' to stay right here till they dry up and die."
As I searched the archives, trying to find Dorothea Lange, what I found was not so much the supremely talented artist with her camera, but a portrait of this nation during the worst of times, bringing into sharp contrast the selfish whining and griping about our current "bad" times. Many complain about our present day social "safety net" and compare it to a hammock (it's not). Dorothea Lange exposes a rudimentary safety net with holes so large, a mesh so wide open, so incredibly bias and inept, that whole families of ten or more fell through it or, simply out of pride, refused to seek help. It's not uncommon for the work of a photo-artist to tell a story. For four long, hard, desperate years, 1935 through 1939, Lange's work is an ongoing narrative, each exquisite, black and white image adding another page, another voice, another yearly chapter to the history she compiled on the road during that time. In view of that, I'm going to do something here I've never done before. I'm going to allow the artist's images and her own words to tell her story. It's a long story. Once I began collecting images, I found it extremely difficult to stop.

August 1936. "Family between Dallas and Austin. The people have left their home and connections in South Texas, and hope to reach the Arkansas Delta for work in the cotton fields. Penniless people. No food and three gallons of gas in the tank. The father is trying to repair a tire. Three children. Father says, 'It's tough but life's tough anyway you take it.'

July 1939. Gordonton, North Carolina. "Country store on dirt road. Sunday afternoon. Note kerosene pump on the right and the gasoline pump on the left. Rough, unfinished timber posts have been used as supports for porch roof. Negro men sitting on the porch. Brother of store owner stands in doorway." Our second look at this establishment, last seen here two years ago.

October 1939. "Mr. Dougherty and one of the children. Warm Springs district, Malheur County, Oregon."
August 1936. "People living in miserable poverty. Elm Grove, Oklahoma County, Oklahoma." A good (or bad) example of the Depression-era shantytowns known as Hoovervilles.
August 1936. "Part of an impoverished family of nine on a New Mexico highway. Depression refugees from Iowa. Left Iowa in 1932 because of father's ill health. Father an auto mechanic laborer, painter by trade, tubercular. Family has been on relief in Arizona but refused entry on relief rolls in Iowa to which state they wish to return. Nine children including a sick four-month-old baby. No money at all. About to sell their belongings and trailer for money to buy food. 'We don't want to go where we'll be a nuisance to anybody."

July 1936. "Hoe culture in the South.
Poor white, North Carolina.
August 1939. Migratory boy in squatter
camp. Has come to Yakima Valley,
Washington, for the third year to pick.
 hops. Mother: "You'd be surprised
what that boy can pick."
July 1939. "Zollie Lyons, Negro sharecropper, home from the field for dinner at noontime, with his wife and part of his family. Wake County, North Carolina.
August 1939. "Drought-stricken farmer and family near Muskogee, Oklahoma. Agricultural day laborer."
June 1938. Pittsburg County, Oklahoma. "Family walking on highway, five children. Started from Idabel, bound for Krebs. In 1936 the father farmed on thirds and fourths at Eagleton, McCurtain County. Was taken sick with pneumonia and lost farm. Was refused relief in county of 15 years' residence because of temporary residence elsewhere.
May 1942: Members of the Mochida family awaiting
evacuation bus at Hayward, California.
The 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 crimes.” During the early the war years, Lange spent time documenting the plight of Japanese-American citizens hustled off for the duration of the war to Americanized versions of concentration camps situated in sparsely populated areas from California to as far east as Arkansas. Ever sensitive to the public relations bombshell they were astride, the federal government impounded photos such as The Mochida Family (above) until long after the war. Ironically, those Lange had photographed while "on the road" during the late 1930s would have envied the conditions in these camps.

Despite the hard times, America during the Depression did not lose her sense of humor... nor did Lange. The dilapidated hotdog stand might not have been exactly booming, but it stood as a harbinger of the "fast food" of the more hopeful future.
(I wonder if the Trojans knew about this?)

Click below for an excellent video featuring the work and voice of Dorothea Lange.


No comments:

Post a Comment