Friday, January 31, 2014

Lightning: "This Wonderful Democratic Instrument"

"I will set myself a big problem.  I will go there, I will photograph this thing, I will come back, and develop it.  I will print it, and I will mount it and I will put it on the wall, all in twenty-four hours.  I will do this, to see if I can just grab a hunk of lightning."  --Dorothea Lange

I first discovered the photography of Dorothea Lange when I began researching the Japanese American Internment for my work on Asian American literature.  I've posted her photos of this time period before, and this is one of my favorite:

Lange took the photo in March 1942, less than a month before President Roosevelt signed Executive Order #9066, mandating the incarceration of "all persons of Japanese ancestry" in concentration camps in Arkansas, Idaho, Wyoming, California, Arizona and Colorado.  Of the 110,000 people incarcerated, 70,000 were American citizens, born in the United States.

Lange was hired by the War Relocation Authority (WRA) to photograph the Japanese Relocation; the Military Police in charge of the relocation itself were less keen on her presence.  There were numerous constraints placed on what Lange could and could not photograph: no pictures of barbed wire, no photos of machine guns or guard towers, no images of the back-to-back toilets in partitionless bathrooms.

Nevertheless, Lange photographed the event, which terrified her because of its implications.  She said once, "it's an example of what happens to us if we lose our heads" (27).

Despite the restrictions, Lange's photographs managed to convey images of the internment that the WRA felt would be prejudicial to the government's efforts; for that reason, most of them were never published.  It is only within the last 5-10 years that many of them have become publicly available.

Lange's career as a photographer began when she worked as an assistant for Arnold Genthe, whose photos of San Francisco's Chinatown and the 1906 earthquake are quite well-known (more on Genthe in a future post).  She established a career as a portrait photographer in San Francisco, but even as she did so, she was drawn to photograph the people in the streets and the world around her.

After hours of taking photographs of her wealthy clientele, Lange would quietly pick up her camera and head into the streets.  She photographed the bread lines during the Depression; she photographed the increasingly violent workers' strikes in California in the mid-1930's.  The opening epigraph to this post describes her decision to photograph the San Francisco May Day Demonstration in 1934.

 Lange is best known for her images of the tenant farmers displaced from farms by the Dust Bowl and "tractored out" by the advent of mechanized farming.  She photographed Southern sharecroppers in the late 1930's and early 1940's.

Her most famous photograph, "Migrant Mother," seen below, is the image of Florence Owens Thompson, a 32-year-old mother of 7, living in a pea-picking camp in Nipomo, California.

Lange shot the photo in March 1936: she was returning from a month-long project of photographing the working conditions of migrant farmers for the California State Emergency Relief Association (SERA).  She initially drove past the handmade sign pointing to the camp--she already had enough images.

Twenty miles later, for no apparent reason, she turned around and went back.

Days later, she sent the images to the San Francisco News; on March 10th, the federal government shipped 20,000 lbs of food to the starving migrants (6).

Lange called the camera a "wonderful democratic instrument": she cultivated a degree of "invisibility" which allowed her to enter worlds to which she seemingly did not belong and gain the trust of others.  She claimed that her limp--she had contracted polio in 1902, when she was seven--gave her "an immense advantage": "It puts you on a different level than if you go into a situation whole and secure" (22).

Lange refused to use a 35mm camera: she preferred looking down into the camera and working with a large negative that she could later crop.  She claimed, "I am not one of these people who sees a finished print before I take a picture... Sometimes I use just a fraction of the negative" (23).

Later in life, Lange travelled the world extensively; she regretted the fact that in Asia and the Middle East, she couldn't remain invisible and photograph what she saw as she had done for years in the United States.

If you're interested in Lange's work, I recommend Elizabeth Partridge's Dorothea Lange: Grab A Hunk of Lightning Her Lifetime in Photography (2013), which is the source of the facts and quotations in this post.  Linda Gordon has also written a very good biography of Lange, Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits (2009), and with Gary Y. Okihiro, Gordon edited a collection of Lange's photographs of the Japanese American Internment entitled, Impounded: Dorothea Lange and the Censored Images of the Japanese American Internment (2006).

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