Saturday, October 16, 2010

Dorothea Lange

Chronological organization is nearly unavoidable in biography, I suppose, but it always seems to undermine the story at the beginning because the author often is wrestling with the least well documented part of the chronicled life. When I started reading Linda Gordon's book, Dorothea Lange; A Life Beyond Limits, the language seemed somewhat stilted and there seemed to be a focus on gossip. A few more pages inward though, the story of the remarkable Lange, her peers and her time began to emerge with great clarity.

Lange's life of stuggle and accomplishment seems ready-made for a biography. Her "Migrant Mother" is possibly the most recognized photograph from the past Century, but I think the details of her life have remained a bit obscure. Some of that is due to the fact that her Farm Security Administration work was often not attributed when published, and much of it was deliberately suppressed. Although the bulk of her best work from the '30s and '40s is in the public domain, it was still a little difficult to put that work into proper perspective until now.

The reproduced photographs in my paperback copy of Godon's book are adequately representative of Lange's best work, but they are really too small to allow appreciation of the luminous quality of the work. The collection on line at the Library of Congress site is comprehensive, but poorly presented. There have been shows and picture books which do justice to Lange, but for immediate on line access the only good collection I have found is at the Shorpy site where the thumbnail images can be enlarged to full-screen size to display the exquisite detail and tonalities emerging from the large format negatives.

Although Gordon is the first to admit to being neither a biographer nor a student of photography, I think she has done a very good job of showing how Lange's body of work emerged from her own innate competence, surrounded by an extraordinary group of artists and thinkers. The historian's perspective also does justice to the formative importance of the time in which the photographer lived, and facilitates vivid connections between the Depression years and the current state of the world.

The style of Lange's FSA work derived from her earlier career as a very successful studio portraitist. She used big heavy cameras, usually on a tripod. and she had little trouble in getting people of means to pay her well to make them look their best. What the FSA's Stryker found compelling about her work was that Lange applied the skills she taught herself in her studio to her field work in portraying the urban and rural masses of displaced people trying to survive the Depression years in California.

The revolutionary impact of Lange's work resided in her ability to find beautiful people everywhere among the mostly rural poor and to photograph them beautifully. What did not really emerge at the time the pictures were made was Lange's skill at putting the people -- men, women and children of all races -- into the context of the Depression-era economy through her photo captions and the documentary sequencing of her images. Those overarching messages of her work were effectively obscured by constant censorship by the right-wing leadership of the Agriculture Department and other government entities. Gordon's book goes a long way toward correcting that distortion.