Making Not Taking Photographs

Backstage views on making photographs professionally

Homelessness: The same experience 70 years apart…

Posted by Mike on November 15, 2008

This photo, when published in 1936 from a farm workers camp in Nipomo ( a few miles south of San Luis Obispo) motivated the government to send a shipment of 20,000 pounds of food into the area to feed the farm workers who were starving. Response time was 3 days. Compare that to 2007-2008 FEMA.

The 2006 photo got the city council and the cops to force the people to move away… as a nuisance and health hazard… and a criminal threat to the well to do neighborhood where the tent city was located… on purpose I might add.

DOROTHEA LANGE

A Life Beyond Limits

By Linda Gordon

Illustrated. 536 pp. W. W. Norton & Company. $35

Gordon expertly analyzes the political culture of Depression-era California, where the enormous power of big agriculture kept tens of thousands of landless workers in peonage and despair. She portrays Lange as an ambivalent radical, deeply sympathetic to the plight of the migrants yet uncomfortable with the chaos that social conflict inevitably produced. Early in the Depression, Lange had tried but failed to photograph the labor protests that shook San Francisco. “Much of the action was so fast-moving and so violent that slow-moving Lange could not or would not get close,” Gordon writes. “This was the territory of the new breed of adventurous photojournalists.” Lange’s talent lay elsewhere.

Gordon is more in tune with the politics of Paul Taylor, who believed in organized protest to redress economic grievances, than she is with Lange’s more passive approach. A portrait photographer at heart, Lange stressed the inner emotions of those facing injustice and deprivation. “Her documentary photography was portrait photography,” Gordon says. “What made it different was its subjects, and thereby its politics.” An individualist at heart, Lange provided an alternative to the photography of wretchedness, which centered on the misery of beaten-down victims, as well as to the Popular Front mythology, which showed earnest, well-muscled men and women laboring together in fields and factories to produce a Soviet-style paradise on earth. Lange saw America as a worthy work in progress, incomplete and capable of better. By portraying her subjects as nobler than their current conditions, she emphasized the strength and optimism of our national character. She became, in Gordon’s words, “America’s pre-eminent photographer of democracy.”

But not for long. Though Lange would go on to photograph the dehumanizing process of Japanese-American internment during World War II and produce a number of elegant spreads for Life magazine, her unique brand of photojournalism — dignified, personal, contemplative — was overwhelmed by the action of wartime photography and the more abstract avant-garde imagery to come. In some ways, Lange, who died in 1965, remains frozen in the ’30s — a relic of the Depression and the enormous creative energy it unleashed. But even a glance at “Migrant Mother” reminds us of the timelessness of her best work. “A camera is a tool for learning how to see without a camera,” she liked to say. Gordon’s elegant biography is testament to Lange’s gift for challenging her country to open its eyes.


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