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In Dorothea Lange’s Photos, Wisps of ‘Great Recession’

November 23, 2009 at 12:00 AM EST
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America's understanding of the Great Depression has, in large part, been shaped by the photography of Dorothea Lange. With the nation once again steeped in financial turmoil, Lange's images have taken on new relevance. Jeffrey Brown reports.
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JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight: a woman who used her camera to document the struggles of a nation.

Jeffrey Brown has that story.

JEFFREY BROWN: As we live through what’s been called the great recession, it is, of course, the Great Depression of the 1930s that we look to, compare with, and fear repeating.

Some of our understanding of that period, our public memory of what life was like comes through photographs of the jobless, the daily struggles of the downtrodden. Some, like “Migrant Mother,” have become iconic images, part of our shared history. It and the other photos we have just shown were taken by a woman who is herself the subject of a new biography titled “Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits.”

Its author is Linda Gordon, professor of history at New York University.

Welcome to you.

LINDA GORDON, author, “Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits”: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Was it the era or the person that first grabbed you, that made you want to tackle this?

LINDA GORDON: It was many eras, because Lange just went through so many important things about American history in the 20th century, from going to school on the Lower East Side with immigrants, to the Depression, through World War II, through the Cold War.

But, you know, in the process, I feel like Lange took over. She is a very, very strong personality. And she sort of stepped into the driver’s seat.

JEFFREY BROWN: She was, in some ways, an unlikely character to become what we think of this chronicler of misfortune. She herself was fairly well-off, right?

LINDA GORDON: Well, she certainly came from the typically middle-class family, although her parents got divorced. And that was an experience which reduced their class status. But, then, in San Francisco, she had a portrait studio that catered to the very wealthy.

JEFFREY BROWN: She became a portrait photographer for well-to-do people in San Francisco. Then she went to work for the Farm Security Administration. Now, help people — remind people. What was the mission? This was a federal agency.

LINDA GORDON: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: What was the mission? And how did she see her mission?

LINDA GORDON: She was brought into a project, the purpose of which was to create pictures of what the Depression was doing to farm people, farm workers, a most unlikely candidate. She was always a city girl, never lived on a farm.

But she identified with that mission totally. She identified very strongly with Franklin Roosevelt. She was a true New Dealer. Also important, she and Franklin Roosevelt were both polio victims, which certainly increased her intensity.

But it’s also important to remember that this was an era of a great deal of federal support for the arts. And it produced a phenomenal amount of the public art that we still appreciate today.

Capturing 'the human drama'

JEFFREY BROWN: So, as a portrait photographer, how did she take that, translate that work into the work she did.

LINDA GORDON: I think that is really the nub of what was genius about her, because when she was first brought on to the program, a lot of the emphasis was, take pictures of soil erosion, take pictures of abandoned barns from the Dust Bowl.

She developed this understanding that you would have much more gripping power in the photographs if they featured people.

JEFFREY BROWN: Sort of the human drama.

LINDA GORDON: Exactly. But you had put those people in their contexts. So, she took her traditional portrait photography, which was always against a blank background, and worked out ways to show these abandoned fields, but to show the people in them and what it meant to them.

JEFFREY BROWN: And how did she approach them? I mean, what was that relationship like?

LINDA GORDON: She worked pretty slowly. Like a portrait photographer, she knew that people stiffen up in front of a camera and that she had to get them to relax. She did that a lot by conversing.

When she could, she had an assistant -- and it was often her husband -- who went with her and conversed with people. But she also I think strategically used her disability. She moved slowly. She also -- she never used a .35-millimeter camera. She used large view cameras and a tripod, heavy equipment.

She would take her time setting it up. She would move it from place to place. She wanted people to just get tired of posing, and to relax, because that is when she could capture what she would call their natural body language, which is what she needed.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, another thing you point out that she did is, she made sure to include black workers, Mexican farm workers, people who I assume at the time were often not part of the story.

LINDA GORDON: Absolutely not.

And, unfortunately, the agency in the Department of Agriculture didn't distribute many of those pictures. They distributed almost exclusively white pictures, because that was a unique aspect of Lange's work.

And I think the fact that she lived in California had a lot to do with it, because I think a lot of Americans still saw race in terms of white and black at that time. But, in California, the story is much more complicated. You have Mexican Americans, Filipino Americans, Japanese and Chinese Americans all tensely involved in the economy.

The endurance of 'Migrant Mother'

JEFFREY BROWN: That most famous photograph that I mentioned in the introduction, "Migrant" -- it came to be called "Migrant Mother."

LINDA GORDON: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: What makes it live so to this day? I mean, what do you think made it become the emblem for that time?

LINDA GORDON: I think, actually, something that is very typical of Lange, although maybe not all of her photographs reached that level of intensity.

But the woman -- Florence Thompson is her name -- is extraordinarily beautiful. She has a very lined, worried face, but it's -- she has beauty. And Lange not only recognized that, but produced it, made it happen. And, also, she did something that I think is a great strength, though some people might complain about it. She deliberately, after taking many -- she always took many photographs of people. At one point, she asked the two young children who were leaning against their mother to turn their heads away.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, I read -- this is very interesting to learn.

LINDA GORDON: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: So -- so, in a sense -- I mean, it's posed, in a sense.

LINDA GORDON: Absolutely.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. But do you see that as a strength, or that's the way she worked?

LINDA GORDON: Well, she believed that -- she never thought that photography is simply an image of what was there. She thought that she could probe more deeply by the way she composed pictures.

And she knew, artist that she was, that she didn't want other faces to compete with the way our attention is just riveted to that one face. It was a compositional strategy.

Her instrument was her eye

JEFFREY BROWN: You -- one of the things you quote her as saying is, "A camera is a tool for learning how to see without a camera."

LINDA GORDON: Right.

And her descendants, the people she -- her proteges, they always think of her as teaching people how to see. She knew that her instrument was not the camera. Her instrument was her eye.

JEFFREY BROWN: But you -- I'm interested. You call her a photographer of democracy and for democracy. So, when you sum -- so, maybe that's a way of summing up. What does that mean?

LINDA GORDON: At one point, I wanted to call the book "Visual Democracy," because I think that she was a visual intellectual and a visual political person who had given a great deal of thought to how you could promote democracy visually.

And I think she wanted to bring people who had been largely excluded or at the margins of the American polity. She wanted to recreate our understanding of what it means to be an American.

JEFFREY BROWN: The book is "Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits."

Linda Gordon, thanks very much.

LINDA GORDON: Thank you for having me.

JIM LEHRER: There's a slide show of Dorothea Lange's work on our Web site, NewsHour.PBS.org, as well as two online-only features. On the Art Beat page, there are conversations all week with National Book Award winners. Tonight, Keith Waldrop reads poetry from his collection. And, on World View, an update on election preparations in Honduras from Marcelo Ballve, part of our partnership with New America Media.