Book Review: Dorothea Lange - Politics of Seeing

Book Review: Dorothea Lange - Politics of Seeing

Dorothea Lange in Texas on the Plains, ca. 1935, the Oakland Museum of California. © Dorothea Lange

Dorothea Lange in Texas on the Plains, ca. 1935, the Oakland Museum of California. © Dorothea Lange

By Sarah Sunday

Showcasing poignant images of hardship and strife, Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing is a collection of the late American photographer’s works throughout the 20th century. The collection highlights the social tribulations that ensued throughout major events such as the Dust Bowl, the Great Depression and World War II. Reminiscent of Dorothea Lange’s ability to overtly render scenes of human struggle through her portraits of toiling and despondent figures cast in black and white, the collection commemorates historic depressions and celebrates the act of incurring sight, and thus, political action, in such conditions.

Drought Refugees, ca. 1935, the Oakland Museum of California. © Dorothea Lange

Drought Refugees, ca. 1935, the Oakland Museum of California. © Dorothea Lange

The book archives Lange’s expansive oeuvre into eight chronological sections, outlining junctures ranging from the internment of Japanese-Americans following the attacks on Pearl Harbor, to an exploration of the first public defenders of low-income defendants in the US legal system in the 1950’s, to the sodden and ailing farming town of Ennis, Ireland and its rugged inhabitants. The book advances into written details behind the photographs, quoting both Lange and others to delve into the possibilities of change in the political sphere via the capture of compelling images nearly a decade later.

White Angel Breadline, San Francisco, 1933, the Oakland Museum of California. © Dorothea Lange

White Angel Breadline, San Francisco, 1933, the Oakland Museum of California. © Dorothea Lange

Migrant Mother, one of Lange’s most internationally recognizable images, pictures a haggard and thinly stretched mother in the pea fields of California, grasping and being grasped by three of her seven children. In her face are etched lines of austerity and the bitter recognition of inescapable adversity, captured through Lange’s use of dramatic contrasts and jarring compositions.

Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California, 1936, the Oakland Museum of California. ©Dorothea Lange

Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California, 1936, the Oakland Museum of California. ©Dorothea Lange

While on assignment for government-formed Farm Security Administration, Lange recounts that the Californian pea fields in the area had frozen over, leaving the farmers squatting, helpless and starving. At the hand of her internal moral compass, Lange felt pulled, as if magnetically, to the female subject pictured in Migrant Mother, 32-year-old Florence Owens Thompson. In the short span of ten minutes, Lange took seven exposures with her 4x5 inch camera. One month following this, the first images of the encounter were published in the San Francisco News. The following day, Migrant Mother was published in a follow-up article titled: ‘Food Rushed to Starving Farm Colony.’ Due to the visibility of the issue, 20,000 pounds of supplies had been rushed to the pea famers by the government. The black-and-white portrait has gained widespread notability since Lange captured it in 1936 and has developed into an iconic snapshot of the American endeavor to rise above social strife.

Family walking on highway - five children. Started from Idabel, Oklahoma, bound for Krebs, Oklahoma, June 1938. Library of Congress. © Dorothea Lange

Family walking on highway - five children. Started from Idabel, Oklahoma, bound for Krebs, Oklahoma, June 1938. Library of Congress. © Dorothea Lange

Lange frames her  subjects in a language of body and form; a harsh realism is aesthetically present throughout her works, as well as a quiet and constant outrage with the existing conditions. Her subjects toil in fields and grip their weathered hands around farm tools. Some look into the camera, most off and out of view; some have glimpses of wane hope across lined faces, most exhibit bitter resolve coupled with hard despair.  

Migratory Cotton Picker, Eloy, Arizona, 1940, the Oakland Museum of California. ©Dorothea Lange

Migratory Cotton Picker, Eloy, Arizona, 1940, the Oakland Museum of California. ©Dorothea Lange

Lange’s work is swathed in empathy, consequential of her contraction of polio at the age of seven. The illness left Lange with a deformed leg as well as a limp; the limp left Lange with a deepened disposition of empathy and humility for those around her. Her disability gave her a heightened sense of the importance of sight, and by publishing images of things that had most commonly remained unseen, Lange fought futility and despair with enlightenment and education.

Lange harbored the belief that the practice of her photography was not an art from, but rather, a trade and a tool, which she nobly utilized with determinations of bettering the socio-political sphere of 20th century America. There still remains in her work a lasting and poignant pertinence, passing on a message of hope as to how creating visibility of events through photography can incur tangible and veritable changes.

San Francisco, California. Flag of allegiance pledge at Raphael Weill Public School, Geary and Buchanan Streets. Children in families of Japanese. © Dorothea Lange

San Francisco, California. Flag of allegiance pledge at Raphael Weill Public School, Geary and Buchanan Streets. Children in families of Japanese. © Dorothea Lange

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