Journal

#MakePortraits: Monday Spotlight: Dorothea Lange

 
What is it in the end? It is a mounted piece of paper with a photographic silver image on it. But in it there is an element which you can’t call other than an act of love. That is the tremendous motivation behind it. And you give it. Not to a person, you give it to the world, to your world…an act of love – that’s the deepest thing behind it….The audience, the recipient of it, gives that back.
— Dorothea Lange
 

When I first undertook this weekly mission to learn about, study and consider the perspectives of the great portrait photographers, I had to keep myself from leading with Dorothea Lange. Her work has deeply influenced my own in countless ways.

Most notably, I referenced her portraits for the Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression while preparing for shooting Untouchable on my first trip to India.

Though I poured over her work, I didn't know much about the woman behind the photographs.

On a website dedicated to the 2011 book "Daring to Look", author Anne Whiston Spirn notes that Dorothea Lange was a storyteller above, possibly above all else.

 

Lange held up her mirror to American society that we might see who we were, how we came to be, and what we were in the process of becoming. Her words and photographs speak powerfully to the present, for the dynamics she saw and recorded are still shaping American lives and landscapes. 

 

Maybe that's why I'm so drawn to her portraits, because they're connected to a story. Or maybe it's because so much of her work lives at the intersection I feel my work lives in: that place where documentary, portraiture and exploration of self collide.

 
Every image [the photographer] sees, every photograph he takes, becomes in a sense a self-portrait. The portrait is made more meaningful by intimacy - an intimacy shared not only by the photographer with his subject but by the audience.
— Dorothea Lange
 

So, if this notion of portraiture as self portraiture is true (and, confession, this is a belief I've always held), then what does the work of Dorothea Lange reveal about the artist? Along the way to publishing this entry, I've learned a few things that seem to answer this question.

Lange suffered a bout with polio at age 7 that left her crippled. This was something she came to be quite thankful for as she reflected on her life & career:

 

“[It] was the most important thing that happened to me, and formed me, guided me, instructed me, helped me and humiliated me,”

 

The early days of her career were spent apprenticing for the likes of Arnold Genthe. Then, she opened a portrait studio in San Francisco around 1919. From that studio she honed her craft as a portraitist, photographing the well-to-do of the city. 

It wasn't until the onset of the Great Depression that Lange came to public consciousness. Her work (above) for the Farm Securities Administration, is regarded as some of the most important by an American photographer in history. She has been the subject of countless books and exhibitions.

During an interview with NPR, author Linda Gordon who wrote the biography Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits noted how the disassociation between the story and the image really upset Lange. Because the images were owned by the Federal Government, the images were freely distributed and as the images became icons of an era, they suffered from anonymity.

 
One of the reasons that she was such a good portrait photographer is that she had an extraordinary power to connect with all sorts of people, to draw them out.
— Linda Gordon
 

Lange, knowing that people stiffened in front of the camera, actually emphasized her disability at times, slowing the whole process down, in an effort to make the subjects of her photos more comfortable.

The style of her work has been characterized as 'detached documentary'. But, these little details seem to betray this notion in profound ways. By diving deeper into her own brokenness, Lange was able to connect with the people of a broken nation & produce works so powerful that they stand as the definitive works of an era. 

If you're interested in learning more about Dorothea Lange, you can watch the Jim Leher News Hour segment featuring Linda Gordon or peruse Lange's work on the Library of Congress website.

 


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