Posts Tagged ‘Dorothea Lange’

Dorothea Lange Next Time Try the TrainTo know ahead of time what you’re looking for means you’re then only photographing your own preconceptions, which is very limiting, and often false.

Dorothea Lange


As a fan of Dorothea Lange’s photography, I was very open to her take on what an artist–  in her case, a photographer– is seeking.  I’ve written a lot here over the years about searching for something  in my work but what that thing is, quite honestly, I do not know.  I know that it is not something I can find without releasing a lot of myself including my fears and preconceptions.

Lange’s idea of preconceptions being limiting is one that rings very true to me, coinciding with my constant chorus that  painting is best done without thought, without having an idea of where it might end up.  Preconceptions create expectations and these too are limiting.  The best work often comes when there are no expectations and no idea of what I am trying to accomplish.  Well, it holds true for my painting, at least.

Her idea ( and mine, I suppose) of searching is so devoid of planning or purpose that it actually reminds me of Picasso‘s thoughts on searching:  I have never had time for the idea of searching. Whenever I wanted to express something, I did so without thinking of the past or the future.

They both very much say the same thing but in differing ways.

And I agree with both.


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Dorothea Lange- 1936 Daughter of a Migrant Coal MinerI was looking at some of Dorothea Lange‘s classic Depression-era photos recently and came upon this image of a young woman. The label says it is from late 1936 and the young woman was the daughter of a migrant Tennessee coal miner living in a camp on the American River near Sacramento, California.  It is such a compelling image that you can almost feel the weariness and sorrow in her.  I find myself wondering whatever became of that girl, if she ever found happiness or contentment or at least shook off those weary blues that seem to be consuming her in the photo.

Lange had a real genius for extracting raw emotion from her photos–it’s so evident when you scan a page of her work where you can see the images together.  It’s obvious that she connected on a very personal level with her subjects, allowing them to expose themselves and their inner emotions within the trust they extended to her.  And with that trust Lange created photos that showed these folks honestly and with dignity, making  you care about these strangers from another era as much as she did in that moment.

That is an extraordinary gift.

Looking at this photo brings me to this week’s Sunday music.  I chose a cover of the old Hank Williams song Weary Blues but done by modern chanteuse Madeleine Peyroux in a more bluesy style.  You would think old Hank was looking at this photo when he wrote the chorus:

Weary blues from waitin’
Lord, I’ve been waitin’ so long
These blues have got me cryin’
Oh, sweet daddy please come home

Have a great day and hope you can use it to shake any weary blues you might have.

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Dorothea Lange - Migrant Mother

Dorothea Lange – Migrant Mother

In a couple of days, on September 18th, there is a new exhibit of the photos of Dorothea Lange opening at the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown.  If you don’t know the name, you still probably are familiar with her images which include the iconic photo shown here on the right, taken in 1936 while she was working for the Farm Security Administration.  Migrant Mother is one of those images that seem to capture with a glimpse all of the sorrow and hardship of those affected in the Depression-era Dust Bowl,  in this case a mother forced to leave her home and wander in search of work that will provide for her children.

Her worry is etched on her face.  While John Steinbeck‘s book The Grapes of Wrath brought the plight of these displaced farmers of that time to the light, it was  Lange’s imagery that  gave them  a sense of humanity  and dignity that reached out and created an empathy with the viewer.  It was powerful, plain and simple.

Dorothea Lange- Grandfather with grandson  at Manzanar CA Camp

Dorothea Lange- Grandfather with grandson at Manzanar CA Camp

Some of her most powerful work came from an assignment she took with the War Relocation Authority during  WW II, when she was hired to document the interment of Japanese-American citizens.  Lange captured the humanity of these prisoners of race at a time when even the liberal and progressive elements in this country maintained silence over the shameful treatment of these citizens.  The photos were censored by the army during the war and were never seen until they were quietly moved to the National Archives, almost 50 years later.

Lange lived from 1895 until 1965, surviving the polio as a child which left her with a distinct limp for the rest of her life.  But neither the limp nor the chronic ulcers that plagued her for the last decades of her life could slow her down.   She sought to affect social change with her images, to give voice to the disenfranchised and down-trodden.

So, if you’re in the Cooperstown area, I highly recommend stopping in at the Fenimore Art Museum to see this work by this giant of American photography.  I know that I am looking forward to seeing it.

Dorothea Lange-  Flag  at Interment Camp at Manzanar CA

Dorothea Lange- Flag at Interment Camp at Manzanar CA

Dorothea Lange Dust Bowl Farm Dalhart Texas

Dorothea Lange- Dust Bowl Farm, Dalhart, Texas


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I was doing a little research on the painter Robert Gwathmey, the social realist painter whose work most often depicted the day to day life of  poor African-American culture of the American South.  I knew that his son, Charles, was a very famous architect but I didn’t know much about his wife, Rosalie.  She was a photographer who chronicled that same rural culture that was the subject of her husband’s paintings.  In fact, her photos were often the source material for his work.

Digging deeper, I came across her photos and found them compelling.  There were poignant shots of families at work and at home, often in abject poverty.  Wonderful compositions of a barn on fire amid the wide flat fields, smoke billowing with an awful ominosity.  All very powerful stuff.

Reading some articles about her I came across a terrific article from 1994 and Erika Duncan in  the New York Times.  It was of an interview with Rosalie Gwathmey, who died in 2001 at the age of 92, focusing on her work as a photographer which, at the time of the article, was being rediscovered as the result of a solo show of her photos.  It turns out that she had been an earnest photographer. associated with some of the other great photogs of the time such as Dorothea Lange,  from around the mid 1930’s up until 1955 when she abruptly put down her camera, destroyed many of ner negatives and gave away her photos.

“I just quit,” was her description.

Reading the rest of the article, she also simply stopped painting at one point, despite having great promise, and she also abruptly ended a long career as a textile designer.  She simply stopped and claimed to have no regrets.

That really made me think.  Was this merely a facet of her personality or could this happen to anyone?   Could I one day suddenly decide that I no longer wanted to paint?  What was it that made her suddenly lose that need to express herself in a certain way?  It became a sort of scary thing to think about for me, as though it were some horrible affliction that lay in wait for me somewhere in the future.  Maybe never but maybe tomorrow.

I don’t know that there are actual answers here, only more questions.  But her quitting is as intriguing an aspect of her life as her wonderful work and makes me wonder how many others have simply walked away from what seems to be a great career.

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Let Us Now Praise Famous MenThis painting is another of the Exiles series, its title, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,  taken from a group of Depression-era photos of sharecroppers in the American dust bowl from the camera of Walker Evans.  I have always been taken with these portraits as well of those of Dorothea Lange.  There is a sense dignity and will that has an eternal quality as though anyone in anytime in any culture would know and could empathize with their sorrow, their struggle.

That universal feeling is what I had hoped for this piece.  I am never sure it hit that particular mark but there is something quite haunting for me in this slightly alien face and the sadness written in his face.  He is a true exile…

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