[The first part of this series is located here: Our Sunday Best: The Crossroads of the Eye and the Heart: Objectivity, Photography, and the FSA (Part 1).]
I never had any sense in making a career out of it. It was more a sense of personal commitment; in fact I have never had a conscious career. People hand it to me, but I don’t feel that way.[i]. Dorothea Lange
Dorothea Lange stands in her studio that morning in 1933 with a wary eye on the street.
This morning at the window of her studio finds her agitated.
The Great Depression widens and deepens day after day. The newspapers are beginning to sound a note of hysteria.
She takes photographic portraits of the “cream of the trade,” as she likes to put it.
Lange’s job is secure. Nothing else is, though.
Lange sees what is going on around her.
Men, out of work, with the lowered eyes of the defeated.
The silent breadlines.
The dark smell of despair that clings to your skin.
She needs to do something. She has to do something. Now. Today.
She pulls her camera strap around her neck and steps out into the street.
Her eyes sweep upward to the last trails of morning fog clinging to the hills of San Francisco.
She turns in the direction of a neighborhood where she has been told that she should not go.
And she walks there as quickly and as deliberately as she can.
Although Lange was established as a portrait photographer, this exact moment is the first time she will meet her true subject: humanity.
History will hurry her along. History always knows the most direct route to your destination.
I decided, almost on a certain day, that I was going to be a photographer. I thought at the time that I could earn my living without too much difficulty…. Maybe I was one of those lucky people who know what they want to do without having to make these hard decisions, but I didn’t know any photography.
That same year, Ansel Adams rejected her from Group f/64![ii]
Her work wasn’t like f/64, he said. Too pictorial, he said. Too fuzzy-wuzzy.
Lange was furious.
Adams regretted this statement much later. By his own admission, he hadn’t seen enough of her work to know what Lange was made of. [iii]
Lange was made of star stuff, of steel springs, of torchlight dreams, and the flint to spark them into life.
What you were doing was important. You were important. Not in the way in an organizational chart, not that way at all. Which made you feel that you had a responsibility. Not to those people in the office, but in general. Dorothea Lange
The day in 1933 that she walked out of her studio into the street changed the entire direction of her life.
Two years later, these images of Great Depression’s effect on San Francisco will bring her to the attention of one Roy Stryker, the chief of the Division of Information of the FSA (Farm Securities Administration).
Like many of the photographers for the FSA, Lange was an unexpected talent with a strong sense of what needed to be done. Stryker hired her with the knowledge that she was tough as a boot.
Striker and Lange fought, often, by letter about her wanting to stay longer in the field in a specific area or about the logistics of keeping her film from being damaged in humid conditions , but she always said that she felt he had “a hospitable mind.”
In the beginning, the FSA’s Division of Information was a little office and one man who wanted, fiercely, to record the truth of the Great Depression, the hard parts about displaced rural populations, starvation, and squatters’ camps.
How do you record the truth?
It’s harder than you think.
The truth is mutable. The truth is subjective.
Start by hiring photographers that believe that there are truths to be had out there.
Give them a general direction and some money, and set them loose.
We found our way in, slid in on the edges. We used our hunches, we lived, and it was hard, hard living. It wasn’t easy, rather rough, not too far away from the people we were working with. Dorothea Lange
In Linda Morris’s monograph at the beginning of Dorothea Lange: A Visual Life[iv], Morris points out Lange shot primarily with a Rolleiflex camera.
Morris explains that Lange held the square format camera near her waist. THe viewfinder of a Rolleiflex is located at the top of the camera.
When Lange took a photograph, she had to bow her head to look into the viewfinder in order to see her subject.
Morris calls this gesture, in Lange’s hands, a “position of humility.”
All those who shot with this style of camera worked in this fashion, but Lange’s general demeanor seems to suggest a true gentleness.
And her gentleness, her posture of humility allowed her subjects to release the tight distance one holds with a stranger. A stranger who is recording the worst parts of your life.
I see you, say the people in Dorothea Lange’s FSA photographs. In another life, you could be me, and I, you. In another life. Not this one, but maybe, the next.
Morris steps farther into this idea several sentences later. She says that Lange’s way of working allowed for these everyday Americans—the folks on the breadline, the sharecroppers, the migrant workers, the children in the Hoovervilles— to show their dignity and pride during times of enormous human sadness.
A sense of human dignity was in short supply everywhere during the Great Depression.
One of them is my most famed photograph. I made that on the first day I ever went out in an area where people said, “Oh, don’t go there.” It was the first day that I ever made a photograph on the street. I made the old man with the tin cup first, but that was life. Dorothea Lange
She walks down the street on an ordinary morning in 1933.
The White Angel Breadline is forming up, so the men can get a little something to eat.
Lange watches them from a distance at first. The anger and sadness shows itself in the way they stand and wait turned this way and that, disconnected from one another, cut adrift into the hopeless eddies of poverty.
Lange steps forward. So much sadness. She’s amongst the men now, and they are shifting around in that cold hungry morning. She might get jostled.
Lange steps forward again. She bows to her Rolleiflex and peers down into the viewfinder. A man leans against the fence erected around the breadline.
She releases the shutter. Lange steps back from the breadline, leaving the men to their thoughts and their hunger.
It is 1933. Dorothea Lange has just put a face to the experience of The Great Depression. It’s no monolithic structure in the distance. It’s not a theory. Nor is it an economic game.
It’s hunger, early in the morning, and no hope of eating.
It’s a man lost in thought— jobless, homeless, hopeless.
It’s a thin cloth coat that won’t keep out the cold.
It is a migrant mother who cannot feed her children.
Everywhere you look from 1933 onward, Dorothea Lange is there with her camera and her kind eye, ready to offer dignity back to the experience of everyday Americans.
[i] All the Dorothea Lange quotes in this essay are from the Oral History Interview with Dorothea Lange, Smithsonian Institution.
[ii] The California Digital Archive maintains a wonderful, and complete, interview with Ansel Adams. Keep in mind that Adams was prone to reverse his opinion on photography history here and there. Most hilarious statement about not inviting Lange into Group f/64 in this interview: “She at the time was so pictorial and so fuzzy-wuzzy it never occurred to us. And I really regretted it later after seeing more of her work.”
[iii] Not that much later, Dorothea Lange would mail her film to Ansel Adams for processing. Often rolls would be destroyed by the humid conditions of certain parts of the South. Those rolls could not be salvaged. He did his best to process her film as quickly as possible, so, in a way, he made it up to her for not including her in Group f/ 64.
[iv] Dorothea Lange: A Visual Life (from p. 22). This collection of photographs and essays was Edited by Elizabeth Partridge, daughter of photographer Imogen Cunningham, protégée of Dorothea Lange. (We talked about Imogene Cunningham in Our Sunday Best: The Time Ghost Rides the Light— Green Succulents and Tina Modotti’s Hips! See how these people start to connect up? Fascinating stuff.)
*WANT TO READ THEM ALL IN ORDER?*
THE CROSSROADS OF THE EYE AND THE HEART
*A SMALL EPILOGUE
[My photography, and all of my writing on photography, is inspired and informed by my mentor, photographer and writer Donald Ewers. This work-in-progress is dedicated to him.]